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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Coming Misery of the Rich (5:1-3)
The Coming Misery of the Rich (5:1-3)

The first half of the paragraph is a description of the awful misery that will come upon the rich. In the first place, they will lose their wealth. But that by itself is far too tame an exposition of James's words. The rich will find their hoarded wealth rotted, their fine clothes moth-eaten and their treasured gold and silver corroded (images that recall Jesus' words in Mt 6:20). James gives vivid and terrible images of the destruction of their wealth, indicating that the rich will experience horror and despair over their loss. They will weep and wail in misery. The verb wail is onomatopoeic—ololyzo—adding to the vividness of the imagery by sounding like the wailing it describes. It conveys the sounds of "weeping accompanied by recurring shouts of pain" (Kistemaker 1986:156), bringing to mind the experience of excruciating grief or anguish. The rich will lose everything they have devoted themselves to and everything they have relied upon. Theirs will be the despair of people who discover their dreams and treasures destroyed forever.

If the rich were only misguided in devoting themselves to their wealth, this first misery would be enough. But there is a second level to their misery: the destruction of the wealth will consume the rich people themselves. The imagery expresses forcefully that their sin has been a deliberate pursuit of evil. Literally, James says, the rust or corrosion on the gold and silver will be the active agent against the rich. The corrosive action will take two forms: first to testify against the rich (acting as evidence of their guilt) and then to eat their flesh like fire (acting as punishment for their sin).

There are, then, three miseries specified for the rich: despair from losing their wealth, guilt from the evidence against them and horrible pain from being devoured in the judgment upon them.

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