“Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of this grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat,” but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.”
Another thought which is clearly implied in verse 9 is the treatment of the poor and lowly brother by the rich. This appears already from the word “lowly” which refers to the utter lack of consideration of the poor by the rich. This is also evident from the general exhortation of the text. Not only are the lowly brethren exhorted to rejoice. But the rich are told that they will be made low. The church is therefore comforted by the anticipation of the humiliation of the rich. This latter thought can only be understood in the light of the rich man’s oppression of the poor. And finally the rest of the epistle, particularly chapters 2 and 5, establish this affliction of the lowly brethren by the ungodly rich.
The abuse of the poor by the rich is a common evil. It occurs in the midst of the world, amongst the children of the world. The poor are always despised, are used merely as a stepping-stone towards riches, for the rest, they are shunned. For the world is earthy and carnal. They are not only of the earth, but they also seek the earth. If one does not possess the things of this world he is considered as possessing nothing. To obtain this world’s fleeting riches is the highest ideal. And unto that end the rich will always subdue and subject the poor. The struggle between the rich and the poor, those that have and that have not, has been raging throughout the ages. It was known in the days of James, and it has ever been in this world.
However, James does not refer in this text to general conditions. He is addressing the church of the living God. If it be true that the rich oppresses the poor even in a general sense in the midst of the world, this is doubly true with respect to the rich’s attitude toward the lowly brother. It is true, of course, that the ungodly rich loves himself and hates his neighbor whoever that neighbor may be. How intense his hatred then must be toward the poor, the lowly people of God! Their very poverty is a testimony unto him that they seek the things which are above, the things he hates! When persecuted and oppressed they do not oppose him but put their trust in the Lord. They do not resort to force and violence but merely continue to testify against his sin and avariciousness. And the result is that the rich treats the lowly brother shamefully. He will use him as long as he can serve his selfish interests. For the rest, the lowly brother is ridiculed and mocked, his faith is derided; yea, the ungodly will kill him if he continues to stand in his way.
This is not all. The situation becomes worse when these tragic conditions are also permitted within the church of God. This is possible. We must bear in mind that James is addressing these words unto the church of God as she reveals herself in the midst of the world. And in the second chapter our attention is directed to the evil of the respect of persons. One cannot escape the conclusion that the church to whom James wrote must have catered to the rich and permitted these corrupt practices within her midst. This danger exists throughout the ages. Is it not true that the rich are sorely needed? Do they not control the finances? What can the church of God, especially when that church is small, do without them? Special favors are therefore granted them. Prominent places in the consistory and societies are accorded them. Their sins are not rebuked, even when, according to chapter 2:7, they blaspheme the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the lowly brethren are afflicted and oppressed. Within the church of God they are never considered. They are barred from all offices and fellowships. They are persecuted if they dare to raise their voice in protest. They are merely a means unto an end, and the cries of these laborers ascend into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth. How necessary, therefore, is this word of James unto them, exhorting them to rejoice!
The rich man, we read, shall be made low. And at the conclusion of verse 11 we are told that he shall fade away in his ways. Some would interpret this conclusion of verse 11 as if James intends to teach us that the rich man will pass away, not himself, but merely in his ways. He will merely lose his earthy possessions. This interpretation, however, is quite impossible. In verse 10 we read: “because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” In addition to this we read in this same verse that he will be made low. And the description of the rich man’s doom in the fifth chapter is too clear and vivid to permit any other interpretation but that the rich man himself will pass away.
The word which is translated “ways” in the expression “he shall fade away in his ways” means literally: purpose, a going, pursuit, undertaking. The word refers to the wicked rich as he is ever in the pursuit of the things of this world.
What does James mean when he tells us that the rich man will not only be made low (verse 10) but also that he shall fade away in his ways? In verse 11 the holy writer uses a figure, an illustration. We read: “For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.” Some have attempted to attach a deep, spiritual, allegorical interpretation to these words of James. The sun, then, is explained here as a symbol of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, and the ungodly rich are consumed at His coming. Of course, we do not deny that Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, or that the rich will be consumed at His coming. But we see no reason why a profound, allegorical interpretation must be attached to a passage as clear as this eleventh verse. The evident implication of the figure speaks for itself. The perishableness of the beauty of the flower of the grass receives the emphasis here. The sun arises, its burning heat withers the grass and the plant, the flower falls out, and its beauty has passed away. The flower of the grass has withered in the very midst of its beauty. So the rich man perishes in his ways, in the very midst of his ways. The rich man is never satisfied. He is always clamoring for more. His heart ever goes out to the things of this time. He continually declares within himself that his house shall stand forever. It is for this reason that he is always cut off in the very midst of his ways, his undertakings, his pursuits, his seeking of the things of this world.
The grim reaper, death, always comes unto him in the night, unwanted and undesired.
The lowly brother, however, shall be exalted. His position in the midst of the world is difficult, particularly when that world begins to control and govern the church of God. It is not a light matter to be poor, to be ridiculed as poor, to be trampled upon. It is difficult especially because the lowliness of the brother is to be ascribed to his being a brother. Is it not largely due to the fact that the Lord is his God? Must he not always love the Lord and place his trust solely in Jehovah? Does the lowly brother not invite affliction and oppression, as it were? Is it not because his God has commanded him never to resort to violence but always to place his trust in Him, that he does not resist when the rich troubles and oppresses him? And are the people of the Lord not a mere handful over against the powers of evil that oppose them? It is difficult, is it not, to be ridiculed and maltreated continually and not to be able to do anything to alter the situation?
However, the lowly brother shall be exalted. He shall be glorified. Of course, the hereafter is meant by the writer of these words. This is not stated literally in this text, but it is recorded in chapter 5:7. It is at that time and only at that time that the tables will be turned. Then, in the day of Jesus Christ, his Lord, will he be glorified. All shame and ridicule and mockery will abruptly cease. He will receive a glory unspeakable. It will then become evident to all that his cause was the cause of the Lord, that he suffered and endured for righteousness’ sake, that he bore the affliction of the world because he had loved wisdom and had sought the things which are above. The text refers specifically to this reversing of the situation. Here, in this world, the rich reigned and the poor were oppressed. With an iron hand the ungodly had lorded over the poor who were oppressed as brethren, as the people of the living God. This will be reversed. The cause of the flesh cannot prevail. Whosoever seeks his life shall lose it and whosoever would lose his life for God’s sake and for the sake of His Christ shall find it. And the righteousness of the cause of the lowly brethren must be publicly revealed in the sight of the wicked whose toys and playthings they were, so that the lowly shall be exalted over them, pass judgment upon them and condemn them, and then reign in glory forever.
Finally, the lowly brother is exhorted by James to rejoice. Let the wicked rejoice, writes James, in that he is made low. James does not exhort the rich here, we understand, to glory in his riches. He proceeds from the fact that he is boasting. This is a fact. Hence, boasting in his riches, he may as well rejoice in his imminent destruction. This is not bitter sarcasm but a terrible reality. His riches are leading him to destruction. Glorying in his present exalted position he may as well glory in his being made low. But, let the lowly brother rejoice. Let him rejoice with respect to the future. That glory is certain. And the child of God may indeed rejoice because of that future, not because he personally will be vindicated, but because the cause of God, wherein he might stand, shall be vindicated eternally. But let that lowly brother also rejoice now. He not only shall rejoice. But he can rejoice now. His present lowliness is according to the good pleasure of his God. The Lord has chosen the poor of this world that they may be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. They are poor in order that in them His grace may be shown, and that Jehovah may be revealed eternally as the sole avenger of His cause, which is derided in this world, but shall be vindicated by the Lord in that day when He shall make all things new.