It is clear in this verse that James intends a contrast with verse nine. There he instructed the lowly to exult in their exaltation, while now he turns his attention to the rich (ho plousios) and speaks of their being brought low (tapeinōsei). Ho plousios means to be materially wealthy and is thus set in contrast to those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata addressed in verse nine. Whereas the lowly (ho tapeinos) are now exalted, the exalted (in the material sense) are now ‘brought low,’ the NRSV translation making the connection and contrast with verse nine explicit. Indeed the two verses demand to be read as a couplet with the syntax of verse nine governing the sense of verse ten. James’ command to the lowly in verse nine (kauchasthō) applies also to the rich in verse ten, the single instruction to boast or to glory being addressed to both groups.
It is also likely that the ho adelphos (‘brother,’ translated as ‘believer’ in the NRSV) from verse nine should be carried forward to verse ten. This is a more controversial claim, with a number of commentators arguing that ho plousios in James should be understood as referring to the ungodly and unbelieving rich who are described and decried in 2:6-7 and 5:1-6. Davids, for example, acknowledges that the syntax could refer to a rich believer, but argues that James would hardly consider such a rich person to be ‘truly Christian’ (77). In this case the exhortation is to the rich to really embrace the humiliation of identification with the poor Christian community so that they may truly have something to boast about! So, too, Scot McKnight views the rich here as the enemies of Christ and the Christian community, and so interprets James’ language as rich prophetic irony: the boasting and humiliation of the rich will soon be turned to humiliation (98-100). The NRSV supports this interpretation by inserting ‘the rich’ a second time into the verse. Despite these arguments, it is preferable to follow the natural sense of the syntax and to understand James as referring to a believer who is also rich. This wealthy Christian is to boast, not in his or her riches—McKnight is almost certainly correct to suggest that Jeremiah 9:23-24 lies in the background of James’ thought here—but rather, in their humiliation (NASB), because (hoti), says James, ‘like the flower of the grass’ (hōs anthos chortou) or perhaps better, a ‘flower of the field,’ or a ‘wildflower’ (NIV), he or she ‘shall pass away’ (pareleusetai).
A particular temptation for the rich is to rely on their wealth, perhaps even coming to believe that their wealth shields them from the trials that afflict the rest of humanity. “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination” (Proverbs 18:11; cf. 10:15). This illusion is strengthened by the fact that wealth does to some degree function in this way. A large bank balance does shelter its owner from many common trials, just as a large estate filled with assets and enviable treasures may tempt its owner to believe in their invincibility, and to boast of their accomplishments. But James adopts a common image from the Palestinian countryside to depict the fate of all humanity—including the rich.
As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15-17).
A voice says, “Call out!” Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever”
James calls the rich to recognise their mortality in common with all people. They, too, ‘shall pass away,’ all their wealth and earthly glory notwithstanding. While their wealth may prove a shield in some affairs, ultimately the only lasting treasure is the fear of the Lord arising from his Word. As a believer they have embraced his Word. James now exhorts them to embrace the humiliation of association with the Christian community, of identification with the scandalous message of Jesus, for this is the true basis of glorying as Paul also insisted: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).