Scripture reveals that injustice has plagued every culture in every age. The Old Testament is replete with examples of God confronting injustice (Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 6:17; 17:15; Jeremiah 5–8). Because God rules the world justly (Psalm 89:14), he expects those to whom he delegates authority to demonstrate justice in his world.
A painful reality of living in a fallen world is the injustice that we regularly see or experience. People in power often use their position to oppress those under their authority rather than giving to each one what he or she is due. Some view themselves as superior and treat others with contempt instead of fellow image bearers of God. Others who are wealthy indulge themselves while they ignore the basic needs of their fellow man, or enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors. Cultural prejudice is alive and well.
God’s Coming Judgment on the Unjust
Scripture reveals that injustice has plagued every culture in every age. The Old Testament is replete with examples of God confronting injustice (Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 6:17; 17:15; Jeremiah 5–8). Because God rules the world justly (Psalm 89:14), he expects those to whom he delegates authority to demonstrate justice in his world. Therefore, the Lord required the nation of Israel to rightly dispense justice among its people. As the prophet Micah declared, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). God’s hatred of injustice is immense and he makes it explicit that he will execute judgment upon the unjust (Isaiah 10:1-3).
In the pages of the New Testament, the plight of injustice was equally real and God’s posture towards the unjust did not change. For example, Jesus confronted the Pharisees and pronounced coming judgment upon them for practicing their meticulous tithing rituals while neglecting “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
One clear eschatological warning for the unjust is found in James 5:1-6. There James denounces the rich who hoard their riches (v. 2-3), defraud their laborers (v. 4-5), indulge their desires at the expense of others (v. 5), and violently oppress the righteous who have no power to resist them (v. 6).
Intermingled with those descriptions of injustice, James echoed the voice of many Old Testament prophets of the future judgment that awaits the rich who act unjustly. It might seem as if life is running smoothly with their possession of earthly power and riches, but the judgment of God is coming and will bring them misery.
Therefore, they should “weep and howl” because their hoarded riches “have rotted” and “rusted,” which served as evidence of their neglect of those in need (vv. 1-3); the cries of the laborers they defrauded have reached God’s ears (v. 4); and their luxurious self-indulgence – to the neglect of the needy – was simply fattening them up for “a day of slaughter” (v. 5). All of these injustices amounted to oppressive violence of the poor (v. 6).
James was giving the unjust rich an eternal perspective. Those who live for self in this life are destined to suffer sorrow in the next. They might escape the consequences in this life for the injustices they carry out upon others, but the day was coming when justice would finally be served.
The only hope for the unjust is to repent of their sin and run to Christ for the forgiveness and salvation that he alone can give. At the cross, God meted out justice upon Christ and offers forgiveness to all who would turn to him in repentance and faith. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
This requires that the unjust humble themselves, repent, and receive the offer of God’s grace. If they persist in their arrogant state, they will receive nothing but judgment for “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Therefore, there are two places that final justice is meted out: at the cross and at the judgment throne. This eschatological warning is meant to ring in the ears of the unjust. However, James was not only concerned with the response of the unjust. He was equally concerned with the response of believers who were suffering at the hands of the unjust.