Your gold and silver is cankered - That is, that you have heaped together, by injustice and fraud, a large amount, and have kept it from those to whom it is due, James 5:4, until it has become corroded. The word rendered is "cankered" ( ́ katiōtai ,) does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament. It properly means "to cause to rust; to rust out" (Passow); "to be corroded with rust" (Robinson); to be spotted with rust. It is true that gold and silver do not properly rust, or become oxidized, and that they will not be corroded like iron and steel; but by being kept long in a damp place they will contract a dark color, resembling rust in appearance. This seems to be the idea in the mind of the apostle. He speaks of gold and silver as they appear after having been long laid up without use; and undoubtedly the word which he uses here is one which would to an ancient have expressed that idea, as well as the mere literal idea of the rusting or oxidizing of metals. There is no reason to suppose that the word was then used in the strict chemical sense of rusting, for there is no reason to suppose that the nature of oxidization was then fully understood.
And the rust of them - Another word is used here - ̓̀ ios . This properly denotes something sent out or emitted, (from ̔́ hēmi ), and is applied to a missile weapon, as an arrow; to poison, as emitted from the tooth of a serpent; and to rust, as it seems to be emitted from metals. The word refers to the dark discoloration which appears on gold and silver, when they have remained long without use.
Shall be a witness against you - That is, the rust or discoloration shall bear testimony against you that the money is not used as it should be, either in paying those to whom it is due, or in doing good to others. Among the ancients, the gold and silver which anyone possessed was laid up in some secret and safe place. Compare the notes at Isaiah 45:3. There were no banks then in which money might be deposited; there were few ways of investing money so as to produce regular interest; there were no corporations to employ money in joint operations; and it was not very common to invest money in the purchase of real estate, and stocks and mortgages were little known.
And shall eat your flesh as it were fire - This cannot be taken literally. It must mean that the effect would be as if it should corrode or consume their very flesh; that is, the fact of their laying up treasures would be followed by painful consequences. The thought is very striking, and the language in which it is conveyed is singularly bold and energetic. The effect of thus heaping up treasure will be as corroding as fire in the flesh. The reference is to the punishment which God would bring on them for their avarice and in-justice - effects that will come on all now for the same offences.
Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days - The day of judgment; the closing scenes of this world. You have been heaping up treasure; but it will be treasure of a different kind from what you have supposed. It is treasure not laid up for ostentation, or luxury, or use in future life, but treasure the true worth of which will be seen at the judgment-day. So Paul speaks of "treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God," Romans 2:5. There are many who suppose they are accumulating property that may be of use to them, or that may secure them the reputation of possessing great wealth, who are in fact accumulating a most fearful treasure against the day of final retribution. Every man who is rich should examine himself closely to see whether there is anything in the manner in which he has gained his property, or in which he now holds it, that will expose him to the wrath of God in the last day. That on which he so much prides himself may yet bring down on him the vengeance of heaven; and in the day of judgment he may curse his own madness and folly in wasting his probation in efforts to amass property.
Other Barnes' Notes entries containing James 5:3:
2 Corinthians 8:15
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