After all of this we see the Lord entering the courtroom and taking his seat at the judge’s bench. His assessment of the situation and the people is not whimsical, capricious, or spontaneous and impromptu. It is a settled judgment based on hard evidence. He is not like the gods of the nations who act based on what side of the bed they woke up on, or any moodiness that affects their behavior. The Lord’s judgments are fair and rooted in justice and righteousness.
He goes after the teachers first (James 3.1), as he should, for they are more responsible. It’s not that the people themselves are not each responsible for their own behavior, but in a society where few were educated, people depended on leadership to know what to do, and therefore the elders and leaders are guilty of a greater sin (Mt. 18.6). Leadership is established by God (Rom. 13.1) to do what is right and good and to lead others in it. Leaders who mislead will be double-judged.
But notice that the Lord is not judging them for making simple errors in judgment, or misperceiving a situation. Everyone does that. Hopefully a good leader will learn from his or her mistakes and get wiser with experience. What the Lord is angry about is the intentional oppression of the poor, the orphans, and the widows (v. 15). It’s a deliberate misuse of power, based in greed and pride, to the detriment of people—real people with children, and souls, and needs. That, the Lord says, is inexcusable and worthy of judgment. These are God’s special people, because those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those despised by others respond more readily and sincerely to loving attention from a loving God. But these are the ones the elders have chosen to oppress even more. It’s like taking candy from a baby—absolutely despicable.
But then in 16, why does he pick on the women? Only because they are symbolic of Israel’s faults. In their culture, generally, the women stayed at home, humble servants of the household, doing their hard work with a spirit of love and devotion. Instead, these women are puffed up with pride. They have become so prosperous and comfortable that they have stopped seeking the Lord and instead are thrilled with themselves. Their lifestyle is so materialistic that they use their money on themselves for not just decoration but extra decoration. Their pride puts the focus of their lives on themselves and on accumulation for the sake of accumulation as a mark of success and worth. It shows a list of sins:
- The pride of life
- Ignoring the poor
- Seek self instead of others
- Ignoring justice and societal responsibility
- Forsaking the Lord
Now look at v. 24. Notice how the punishment fits the crime and is perfectly just.
- Their perfume was to bring smiles to the faces of those around them and cause them to think they were attractive. Instead it (the perfume, but symbolically their self-centered pride) would be a stench to those around them, causing a grimace and scorn.
- Their sash, symbolic of affluence and materialism, will become a rope of slavery. Actually, their affluence had already enslaved them, and they couldn’t see it.
- Their hair was not only a mark of beauty but a symbol of their uniqueness and of self-respect. For example, in the concentration camps of WWII, the heads of all prisoners were shaved. They then all “looked alike”, so to speak. Their individuality and sense of self was stolen from them. It was a way to humiliate people. Here their sin would have the same effect: instead of being beautiful it would sink them all into the same mire of depravity, and they would all be humiliated.
- Sackcloth was the attire of mourning. Instead of the joy, pleasure, and esteem of fine clothing, all that would come of all their pompous pride would be sadness. After all, it was just emptiness all along. In the end it will be shown for its true nature.
- Instead of beauty, freedom, joy, and peace, there will be slavery, oppression, and sadness. And their own behavior will have brought it about.