Jonathan Edwards on James 5:1–6 and American-Slavery

James 5:1–6 contains one of the clearest denunciations in the New Testament of slavery:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Not surprisingly, when he commented in his “Blank Bible” on this passage (available for free at Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards Online), he gives us an illuminating example of how a New Testament exegete can completely miss the point:

James 5:1–6. Dr. Doddridge supposes that in these verses the Apostle has respect to those dreadful calamities on the Jewish nation which were then just at hand. The James 5:1 he translates, “Come now, ye rich men, weep and howl over the miseries that are coming upon you,” and says in his notes, “Josephus particularly observes how much the rich men suffered by the Romans in the Jewish war. I have rendered ταλαιπωρίαις ταῖς ὲπερχομέναις, ‘miseries which are coming upon you,’ and I think it more agreeable to the original than our English version, ἐπερχομέναις being a participle of the present tense.” “For the last days.” “This phrase does not merely signify, for the time to come, but that period when the whole Jewish economy was to close, and when those awful judgments threatened in the Prophets to be poured out upon wicked men in the last days, are just coming (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2, 2 Peter 3:3, and the like). Compare Matthew 24:33–34, 1 Corinthians 10:11.” 1 Corinthians 10:5, “You have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.” Dr. Doddridge renders this thus. “Ye have pampered your hearts for a day of slaughter,” i.e. as beasts fed for a day of slaughter, and observes, “That there are some who render ὡς ἐν ἡμέρα σφαγῆς ‘as in a festival,’ when many sacrifices are slain, but Wolsius observes that the word is always used in the Seventy to signify not a day of feasting, but of slaughter.” 1 Corinthians 10:6, “Ye have condemned and killed the just.” Dr. Doddridge renders it, “Ye have condemned and murdered the righteous one,” supposing Christ especially intended by the righteous or just one.

Edwards performs some of the important steps of exegesis: historical/cultural background (the Jewish war, Josephus), he parses the Greek verb (ἐπερχομέναις), he does a little word study (ἡμέρα σφαγῆς). He even has a nice “Christocentric” turn at the end in his interpretation of “righteous one.”

All of this nice exegesis, even the “Christ-centered” part, completely misses the point of this passage. It’s all a distraction. Edwards could explore all of these facets of Biblical interpretation while at the same time depriving his own laborers of their wages. In fact, he was probably afforded the leisure needed to do his studies and write these words because of the free labor extracted from his slaves.

Interpretation without application is mis-interpretation.

(Note that a search of the WJE archives for James 5, including sermons, retrieves zero instances where he treats this passage in any more detail than here.)

(Photo by Aleksander Suszyński on Unsplash)