Their Wealth Was Unjustly Gained
Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. (5:4)
The wicked rich were not only guilty of sinfully hoarding their wealth; they had also sinfully acquired it. Far from being generous to the poor as Scripture commands (Deut. 15:9–11; Matt. 6:2–4; Gal. 2:10), they exploited them. Specifically, they had withheld the pay of the laborers who mowed their fields—a practice so shocking that James introduced the statement with the arresting word behold. The perfect tense of the verb translated withheld suggests that the wicked rich completely withheld at least part of their laborers’ pay; they did not merely delay payment.
Day laborers were an essential part of Israel’s agrarian economy (cf. Matt. 20:1–16), and withholding their wages was strictly prohibited by the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:13 commanded the Israelites, “You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” Deuteronomy 24:14–15 repeats that injunction: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets.” Verse 15 explains why withholding the pay of a day laborer is such a serious matter (“for he is poor and sets his heart on it”) and warns of the consequences of such unjust behavior (“so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you”). Lacking the security of a steady source of income, the poor day laborers depended on each day’s wages to feed and clothe their families. So serious a matter was withholding the pay of a day laborer that Jeremiah pronounced a curse on those who did so: “Woe to him … who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages” (Jer. 22:13; cf. Mal. 3:5).
As he earlier did with the rust that would act both as witness and executioner, James personified the pay that had been unjustly withheld (for examples of the personification of other inanimate objects in Scripture, see Gen. 4:10; 18:20; 19:13; Job 31:38; Pss. 65:13; 98:8; Isa. 55:12; Hab. 2:11). That pay, James warned the wicked rich, cries out against you. Krazō (cries out) means “to shout” (Matt. 15:22–23; Acts 19:32, 34; 24:21), or “to scream” (Luke 9:39). It is used in Mark 9:26 to describe the shrieks of a demon being expelled from its victim, in Matthew 21:9 of the joyous cries of the crowd during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and in Matthew 27:23 of the hate-filled cries of the bloodthirsty mob for Jesus’ execution.
James then added the sobering warning that the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (cf. Deut. 24:15). The painful cries of the robbed, defrauded laborers reached the ears of God—and they would echo there until He acted in righteous judgment. Sabaoth is an untranslated Greek word which derives from the Hebrew word tsaba meaning “hosts,” or “armies.” The phrase the Lord of Sabaoth describes God as Commander of the armies of heaven (cf. 1 Sam. 17:45). He is the One who hears the cries of the defrauded poor and will call His angelic armies to act in judgment (cf. Matt. 13:41–42; 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 2 Thess. 1:7–8).
A frightening judgment awaits those who unjustly hoard the wealth they rob from the poor. Their victims will cry out for justice to the Righteous Judge and He will not disappoint them.
Fraud and Oppression (5:4)
For James, eschatology does not blunt social criticism; it inspires it. His emphasis on future retribution does not blind James to current social problems; it “strengthens his social conscience.” Precisely because judgment is coming, people must treat the poor well today. The poor cry out, says James, and their cries reach God’s ears. He will defend the oppressed. As the Lord of Hosts, he has mighty armies to do his bidding.
James holds a specific complaint against the rich: they have defrauded their field laborers of their wages. As he says, “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” This could mean several things: (1) they pay, but after undue delay (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15); (2) they pay less than they agreed, less than a living wage; (3) they refuse to pay at all. (Prov. 11:24 and Jer. 22:13 may address all three sins.) Biblical law emphasizes the need to pay fair wages to day laborers and to do so at the end of the day, because a laborer and his family would otherwise go hungry.
The rich think nothing can stop them. The poor seem powerless. They can only cry out to God: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). But “the Lord hears the needy” (Ps. 69:33). He stands “at the right hand of the needy” (Ps. 109:31). This is a social principle and a gospel principle too. Jesus blesses the poor (Luke 6:20) and preaches the good news to them (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18).
Today, certain fruit and vegetable farmers still hire day laborers, who are often migrant workers. But outside agricultural regions, few Western Christians hire day laborers. Still, everyone who sets wages has an obligation to keep his employees from living on the edge of hunger or illness. If we have authority over wages and benefits, or if we serve in the field of public policy, we should promote policies that ensure justice for laborers.
4 Whereas decaying possessions serve as the first witness to take the stand against the rich (vv. 2–3), the author now calls due wages stolen and the resulting cries of the harvesters in witness to the flagrant injustice perpetrated by these wealthy landowners. As elsewhere in the book, he uses the word translated “look” (idou, GK 2627) to rivet the readers’ attention (3:4–5; 5:7, 9, 11), and their attention is drawn to a blatant form of unfairness—pay that is due a laborer for an honest day’s work. The farmworkers have harvested grain for their employers with the expectation of being paid for their labor. In contrast to the rich landowners, who hoarded great surpluses of wealth, many common laborers lived day-to-day and depended on their meager wages for the basic necessities of life. To be deprived of what one had rightly earned could constitute a threat to life itself (Moo, 216; Laws, 201–2).
Thus two cries are raised against these crooked landowners, the first by the wages themselves. James defines the wages with a perfect passive participle meaning “having been stolen” (apostereō, GK 691). Biblical literature bears witness eloquently concerning the consequences for those who take advantage of common laborers in this way (e.g., Lev 19:13; Job 7:1–2; Jer 22:13; Mal 3:5; Mt 20:8). As mentioned above, James seems to have in mind both Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14–15. The latter passage points to special responsibility toward the poor: “Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it.”
Moreover, these wages “are crying out” in demand of justice. The prepositional phrase aph’ hymōn can be read in two ways. If understood as associated with the adjectival participle immediately before it, James is stressing the idea of agency: “the wages stolen by you.” This use of apo is rare, though James does employ it at 1:13 in asserting that temptation does not originate with God. However, the phrase also could be read as belonging to the verb that follows, with apo having the more characteristic sense of source. In this case, James confronts the rich with the cries emanating from the money they have stolen, proclaiming that these stolen wages cry out from their very moneybags.
Second, condemning cries go up from the workers themselves, rising up to “the Lord Almighty.” In the Bible, the Lord’s concern for his people is, at times, expressed as his hearing their cries, such as the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground and the cries of the Israelites in bondage, or simply the cry of the righteous person for help (e.g., Ge 4:10; Ex 2:23; Ps 17:7). With his reference to “the ears of the Lord Almighty,” James seems to be alluding to the Greek translation of Isaiah 5:9, a verse offered as part of a scathing judgment against the wealthy of the land. The term sabaōth (GK 4877) is a favorite of Isaiah, used in the book some sixty times, and refers to God’s awesome power (Johnson, 302–3; Davids, 177–78). That power descends in judgment on all oppressors of God’s people.
4 “The Epistle of James,” wrote Deissmann, “will be best understood in the open air beside the piled sheaves of the harvest field.” This rural background is seen here. The commination of the rich in 5:1–6 includes (v. 4) some farmers, who do not promptly and punctually pay the wages of men who have been working for them in the fields. As Mayor points out (p. 153), this charge goes deeper than that of 4:13–16, which concerns the illusion of self-confidence and self-sufficiency that rules the mind of godless men whose main interest is naturally in the pursuit of wealth.
On unattached workers hired by the day, see 3:14; Matt. 20:1ff. The greedy rich do not pay them at the end of the day, and there was then no practical way of enforcing the law of Lev. 19:13 and Deut. 24:14. Oppression of laborers is often denounced from early times onward (e.g., Isa. 58:9; Jer. 22:13; Mal. 3:5; Sir. 34:22; Tobit 4:14). Prompt payment of wages is also enjoined by the rabbis. Unlike the slave, who had someone who might protect his interests, the free laborer15 had none. The scene is deliberately set after harvest: the owners of these large Galilean “estates” were well able to pay wages. The compound withheld17 indicates not just delay but complete default. Some would connect “by you” (see 1:13) with “cry aloud” and render “cry aloud from you,” i.e., the place where the wages are wrongfully retained (see Gen. 4:10; Exod. 2:23 ); but this seems rather fanciful. We would hazard a reason for from in this phrase, viz., that the dominant notion is the employers’ failure to pay the wages when due. The money itself is said to appeal for justice. Cry aloud, a wild, incoherent cry, often of animals in Classical Greek, is used in the LXX of protests, especially against wrong and injustice (e.g., Exod. 2:23; Deut. 24:15; Gen. 18:20, Sodom and Gomorrah’s cry; cf. Luke 19:40). On at least one occasion the laborer himself is said to cry to the Lord (see Deut. 24:15). The ears of the Lord is simply a vivid “anthropomorphic” way of saying God listens and responds to his people.
The title “Lord of Sabaoth” combines majesty and transcendence and emphasizes that the cause of the poor is to come before the supreme Sovereign, whose justice is now to be visited upon the rich: “it is the same God, who created the sun, moon and stars, and who orders their courses, who is also deeply concerned about the just treatment of the poor and insignificant” (Mitton, p. 180). The primary reference is to Yahweh as the God of the hosts or the armies of Israel and later of the hosts of heaven. The rabbis rarely use the title, but on Exod. 3:6 connect it with Yahweh’s war against injustice.
“Sabaoth” has become familiar to us through the Te Deum; though strangely some writers, like Spenser, Bacon, and Sir Walter Scott, confused it with “Sabbath.”
A Revelation (5:4)
By now a reader of James may be forgiven for being as weary as the commentator in having to explain the logical movements of the book. From the substance of 5:4 one can infer that James now informs the rich, even if they are not listening, that their oppressive behaviors against the poor have now entered the ears of the God of hosts. The substance, in other words, provides what we need to know about the logical movement: from descriptions of the impermanence of riches, to the implication of the sustained affections of those who pursue riches, to a revelation in v. 4. This revelation is designed rhetorically to awaken the rich from their immoral slumbering by appealing to an Old Testament trope—the unjust actions of the powerful rich, the oppression of the poor, the prayers of the poor to God for justice, the ears of God hearing the prayers, and God acting to judge oppressors and liberate the oppressed. The language roots us in Moses’ choice of violence as well as the exodus event and all its many variations throughout Israel’s history, not the least of which are Acts 7:23–29, 35 and Hebrews 11:24–28. Thus, after Moses slays the Egyptian (Exod 2:11–14), we read Exodus 2:23b–25:
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
One suspects that such a contrast, the violence of Pharaoh and the people’s cry to God for liberation, forms some of the backdrop to James’s warnings about the need to resist the attractiveness of violence and his confidence that God will hear the cries of the oppressed.
5:4a The alarm James rings in the ears of the rich opens up with a loud imperative: “Listen!” or possibly “Remember!” The tenses used open a window on the rhetoric of James: “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out [present], and the cries of the harvesters have reached [perfect] the ears of the Lord of hosts.” The present tense, now frequently called the imperfective aspect, is used to depict action that is not complete, while the perfect tense (perfective or stative aspect) is used to depict action that is complete and has led to an existing state of affairs. The state of affairs is that God has heard; the cries of the oppressed, however, are not yet completed—they are going on as the readers listen.
The oppressed, who may well be the poor of 1:9–11, have labored to earn wages: “the wages of the laborers.” The graphic realities of day laborers appear in the parables of Jesus, as do the themes of injustice, generosity, and final vindication (e.g., Matt 20:1–16). The labor involved is mowing fields, that is, harvesting grain.
But the rich farmers have defrauded the workers of their rightful wages: “which you kept back by fraud.” Here we encounter a typical accusation against the rich because, and our society is no different, it is a typical behavior. Laws were written to protect the poor from such behavior. Hence, Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” Or Deuteronomy 24:15: “You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.” One of Jesus’ parables describes the norm: “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay’ ” (Matt 20:8). So, there were prophetic warnings against the oppression of withholding wages. Thus, Jeremiah 22:13:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages.
Sirach’s language is strong: “To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder” (Sir 34:26 [LXX 34:22]). And the wealthy could examine their hearts on this matter, as we find in Testament of Job 12:4: “Nor did I allow the wage earner’s pay to remain at home with me in my house.” So the poor, or their wages, are crying out to God.
The theme of the oppressed crying out, which, as indicated above, evokes the children of Israel in Egypt, appears first in the primeval story of Cain and Abel, whose blood cried out to God for justice (Gen 4:10), and then later in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20; 19:13). Injustice leads to a cry for help and justice as the oppressed appeal to God (1 Sam 9:16; Isa 5:7; Sir 21:5; 35:17; 1QH 13:12; 4Q381 fragment 24ab 8).
5:4b If the cry of the oppressed forms the first part of this revelation, the second is that God hears these cries, as James both repeats what he has said and extends his thoughts into the heavenly court: “and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” The verb “cry” (krazō) in the first part of the revelation is replaced now by the noun “cry,” boē, conforming this text to the formative words of Exodus 2:23, where the Septuagint uses cognates of boē. Instead of “laborers” in this substantive repeat of 4:a, James uses “harvesters.” Most importantly, the cries of the oppressed harvesters “have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”121
Just why James speaks here of “the Lord of hosts” is not entirely clear. The language evokes the Warrior God tradition of ancient Israel, and one thinks first of a text like David’s words to Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:45: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the YHWH of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” Here in James the hosts are probably the heavenly retinue (Ps 103:21). As the covenant formula promises that YHWH will be Israel’s God, so YHWH of hosts has chosen Israel as his vineyard (Isa 5:5, 7). Even more pertinent to our text, and this language evokes the great and fulfilled prophecies of Isaiah, is that YHWH of hosts brings justice (Isa 5:16, 24, and see Rom 9:29). James’s use of “Lord of hosts” most likely draws on this theme of the God of justice who, along with the heavenly retinue, enacts justice for the oppressed in judgment. The oppressed cry out (Pss 17:1–6; 18:6; 31:2), and the Lord of hosts brings justice—in this context, justice against rich, defrauding employers. Vv. 7–11, where James will counsel the messianic community on what to do in the face of this oppression, make it clear that James uses “Lord of hosts” because he has in mind an imminent act of judgment against the oppressors.
Some have disputed whether his language is real or simply biblical imagery, a fashionable trope that carries meaning without necessarily referring to real fraud. In light of 1:9–11, the concrete descriptions in 2:1–7, 14–17, and the business pursuits of 4:13–17, it is hard to think of anything other than a plain reality when James accuses the rich of fraud, even if he uses stock language from the Old Testament. The same texts in the letter inform us of the likely protest on the part of the poor as they implore God out of their helplessness to intervene to establish justice. Simple reality might also best explain why James speaks against violence (1:20) and murder (4:2). The theme of patience that quickly follows in 5:7–11 is a logical corollary of learning to wait on God to establish justice instead of relying on one’s own violent measures.
Depriving workers of their rightful wages (v. 4)
The Old Testament consistently condemns fraudulent treatment of workers (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15; Prov. 3:27–28). But some were ignoring those commands.
The rich would certainly not have been hurt by paying the wages. They had plenty from which to pay! But the workers, who lived from day to day and from hand to mouth, were hurt tremendously by not getting paid.
James depicts the seriousness of the matter in terms of two cries going up to God. The first is the cry of the unpaid wages. James pictures them sitting there in the bank and crying out to God because they have not been sent to those to whom they should have gone.
The second is the cry of the workers themselves. It is the cry of anguish, as they sit down with their families to eat a crust of bread or nothing at all when they could have been eating a decent meal.
These cries do not go unnoticed. They are heard by ‘the Lord of Sabaoth’ (v. 4). The Bible uses many names for God. He is such a glorious being that no one name can do justice to him. The name James uses here means ‘Lord of hosts’. It tells us that God is surrounded by hosts of angelic beings, and that he is greater than all of them. He is their Lord.
The God who is greater than all the hosts of heaven is certainly great enough to mete out justice to the cruel fat cats who inflict such pain and misery on their workers!
5:4 / Furthermore, James knows accumulated wealth usually indicates injustice, which in Palestine was usually injustice against agricultural workers. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The Palestinian economy used hired day laborers rather than slaves, partly because a slave would cost more should he or she convert to Judaism. The hired laborers would be the younger sons of peasant families or peasants forced off their land due to the foreclosure of mortgages on their property. These laborers lived a hand-to-mouth existence: Today’s wage bought tomorrow’s breakfast. When the wage was not paid at the end of the day, the whole family went hungry. Despite a host of Old Testament laws (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15), ways were found to withhold payment (e.g., Jer. 22:13; Mal. 3:5). One might withhold them until the end of the harvest season to keep the worker coming back, appeal to a technicality to show that the contract was not fulfilled, or just be too tired to pay that night. If the poor worker complained, the landlord could blacklist him; if he went to court the rich had the better lawyers. James pictures the money in the pockets of the rich, money that should have been paid to the laborers, crying out for justice.
The cries have not gone unheard, for the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. Since they are harvesters, there is no excuse that there was no money; there are heaps of grain to be sold. The hungry worker has cried out to the only resource he has—God. By saying the Lord Almighty, James reminds the reader of Isaiah 5:9, where those acquiring large estates are condemned. All Jews knew what happened to those whom Isaiah condemned, and they knew that God’s ears are open to the poor (Pss. 17:1–6; 18:6; 31:2), so James’ statement implies a threat of judgment.
5:4 wages you failed to pay. Another way to translate this is, “the wages that have been stolen by you.” James uses the word for steal that in Mark 10:19 refers to “appropriating someone else’s possessions” and is effectively parallel to “You shall not steal.” (It is also used in 1 Cor. 6:7 of one Christian monetarily cheating another Christian.) Given James’s propensity to cite the Ten Commandments and another allusion to the sixth commandment in 5:6, we should see this accusation in terms of a direct violation of the eighth commandment.
cries of the harvesters. The cries of the harvesters and the crying out of the stolen wages in 5:3 link to 5:1, where the rich are told to weep and wail (or “cry out”). Although different words are used, the connection is that just as those who were oppressed cried out to the Lord, so the rich need to cry out in repentance to God. Also, if by reading this somehow the rich could be encouraged to cry out in repentance before the cries of the workers reach the Lord, the rich would spare themselves great trouble.
Lord Almighty. Or Lord Sabaōth, or the Lord of hosts. The title points to God as the commander of the armies of Israel and ruler over all. This militaristic language about God links this section to 4:6, where James used militaristic fighting language in the phrase “God opposes the proud.” When the cries of the harvesters reach the Lord of hosts, he gathers himself for battle to bring down the proud oppressors (cf. Exod. 2:23–25).
One sin always leads to others. The sin of greedily hoarding riches instead of sharing them with the poor prompts the sinner to rob the poor. In this instance, the rich rob the laborers who have mowed the fields in the harvest season.
4. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
James takes the readers out to the open fields, as it were, where no one can hide. Here they can see the injustice poor people suffer at the hands of the rich. Apparently the harvest season has come to an end, the fields are empty, and the barns of the rich are filled with the bounties of the earth. Although we cannot be certain, the readers of the epistle may have been among those who harvested the fields of the rich landowners.
- “The wages you failed to pay.” The workers were day laborers who agreed with an employer on the daily wage and who expected to be paid at the end of the day (Matt. 20:8). The law of Moses stipulated that the employer ought “not [to] hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15). Their families were dependent on the daily earnings of these workers; delay in payments meant no food at the dinner table and anguish in the souls of the laborers.
- “The workmen who mowed your fields.” Cultivated fields that yielded crops belonged to prosperous landowners. Some of them had appointed managers while they themselves lived elsewhere. They hired extra farm laborers to cut the standing grain, bundle it, and to collect the sheaves into shocks. These workers were needed so that the ripened grain did not spoil because of bad weather or other reasons.
- “The wages … [of] the workmen … are crying out against you.” Instead of the joy of the harvest season (see Ps. 126:5–6), these laborers had to cope with anger because of broken promises, delays, and the prospect of not being paid at all. They cried out against the rich and demanded justice. Presumably they were acquainted with the curse God pronounced upon the rich who made their “countrymen work for nothing” (Jer. 22:13; also see Mal. 3:5). Perhaps they knew the saying of Jesus, “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7; and compare 1 Tim. 5:18). They had no one to defend them but God.
- “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” The mowers and the harvesters are the same people. Their cries are not heard by the rich, but the Lord hears his people. The New King James Version provides a literal translation of the Greek in the words the Lord of Sabaoth. The New International Version, by contrast, translates these words “Lord Almighty.” This translation communicates but does not necessarily give the significance of the original expression Lord Sabaoth, that is, Lord of the armies in heaven and on earth. God the omnipotent is on the side of the downtrodden. He puts his majestic power to work to vindicate his people and to mete out swift justice to their adversaries. Thanks to Martin Luther we have become familiar with the name Sabaoth.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
5:4. The sin of injustice occupies center stage here. The wealthy had failed to pay wages to their workers. In New Testament Palestine rich farmers hired day laborers to work their fields. Deuteronomy 24:14–15 demanded that an employer pay an employee his wages on a daily basis. The laborers lived a hand-to-mouth existence. They needed wages each day to purchase life’s necessities. A wealthy employer might retain wages until the end of the harvest to prevent the workman from leaving him. If the worker protested, the rich man could blacklist him. If the poor went before judges, the rich had better legal representation. James’s readers had mowed or reaped the fields, but the wealthy landowners withheld their pay. This injustice displeased God.
James personified the withheld wages. These unpaid wages cried out to God against the wealthy. Although the rich landowners might not hear the pleas of the poor, God would hear their prayers. One of the most majestic Old Testament names describes the God who hears prayers. He is termed the Lord Almighty or the Lord of Hosts. This pictures God as the head of Israel’s armies (see 1 Sam. 17:45) and heaven’s angels (see 1 Kings 22:19). It presents a powerful picture of God’s mighty resources available for his people.
As we face hardship in daily living, we have the complete resources of almighty God protecting us. Ultimately, none of our hardships can vanquish us. Whatever needs we face, we can expect the Lord of Hosts to be our helper and source of strength.