Interest Rates - Usury

Usury is defined as the act or practice of lending money at a rate of interest that is excessive or unlawfully high. In biblical times it was the practice of collecting any interest on something that was loaned to another. As a Biblical subject, this is most interesting.

The term is used very little today. This is because most of those involved in loaning money don't want you to think about the concept of usury, nor do they want their customers to recognize that what they are doing is often a serious abuse of the concept of charging interest on the money borrowed.

With rates going into the stratosphere at 25-35% on credit cards these days along with high charges for other things it's a subject that deserves closer attention. This is especially egregious given the paltry sums paid back to you on your savings accounts, CD's, etc. Someone’s making a lot of money off of what you deposit in their accounts - money that rightfully belongs to you, and not to them. Your deposit is an asset for them, not a liability.

YAHWEH has some very significant things to say about charging interest.

We begin with the definitions from Strong’s Concordance of the Hebrew words translated as usury, interest, lending, lending on interest. Once you're familiar with these definitions the Scripture passages will make more sense.

(Please keep in mind that everything after the “:—“ is a term actually used in The King James Version of The Bible to “translate” the Hebrew term. It is not part of the definition.

4855. aÚÎvAm mashsha}mash-shaw´; from 5383; a loan; by implication, interest on a debt:
— exaction, usury.

5383. hÎvÎn nashah, naw-shaw´; a primitive root (rather identical with 5382, in the sense of 5378); to lend or (by reciprocity) borrow on security or interest:
— creditor, exact, extortioner, lend, usurer, lend on (taker on) usury

5392. nR‰v‰KJ neshek, neh´-shek; from 5391; interest on a debt:
— usury.
ty;Ib√r;At tarbiyth, tar-beeth´; from 7235; multiplication, i.e. percentage or bonus in addition to principal:
—increase, unjust gain.

Nehemiah 5.1-13:  And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brothers the "Jews". 2 For there were those that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live. 3 Also there were those that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. 4 There were also those who said, We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. 5 Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children as their children: and, look, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards. 

6 And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. 7 Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, You exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them. 8 And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brothers the Jews, which were sold to the heathen; and will you even sell your brothers? Or shall they be sold to us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer. 9  Also I said, It is not good what you do: ought you not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen, our enemies? 10 I likewise, and my brothers, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn. I pray you, let us leave off this usury. 11 Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part (percentage) of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that you exact of them. 12 Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as you say. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. 13 Also I shook my lap, and said, So may YAHWEH shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performs not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised YAHWEH. And the people did according to this promise.

From The Bible Knowledge Commentary:

"Nehemiah 5:1-5: Up to this point Nehemiah’s challenges as a spiritual leader focused primarily on those outside of Judah. But before the walls were finally rebuilt, he encountered the most difficult and intense kind of problem almost every spiritual leader has to face sometime—problems within. For Nehemiah, those problems centered not on Sanballat, Tobiah, or Geshem but on his own people, the Hebrews. There were four such difficulties. First, the people face a food shortage. They said they needed to get grain for food to keep themselves and their families alive (v. 2). The work on the wall hindered their tending their crops. And this crop failure was called a famine. Second, others had grain (buying it from others), but to get it they had to mortgage their fields . . . vineyards, and homes (v. 3). Third, others, not wanting to mortgage their property, had to borrow money from their Jewish brothers to pay property taxes to King Artaxerxes (v. 4). This problem was compounded by the fact that they were charged exorbitant interest rates by their own Hebrew brothers.

This led to a fourth problem. To repay their creditors they had to sell their children into slavery (v. 5; cf. Ex. 21:2-11; Deut. 15:12-18). This of course left them in a hopeless state.

All these difficulties created an internal crisis in Yahudah (Judah). And they meant ”double trouble“ for Nehemiah. Not only were their enemies a constant threat to their security and state of well-being, but now many Hebrews were actually taking advantage of other Hebrews. Morale, which was already low (Neh. 4:10-12) because of external pressures, physical exhaustion, and fear, now took another plunge because of these internal problems.

5:6-7a. Nehemiah’s initial response to all this was deep anger. His intense emotion was directed at certain people’s selfishness, greed, and insensitivity. Some people were hurting and suffering, and those who should have been the most compassionate (the nobles and officials) were most guilty of exploitation.

Though Nehemiah’s anger was certainly righteous indignation he did not take immediate action. Spending time reflecting on the problem enabled him to cool down, to see the facts in proper perspective, and to decide on a course of action (v. 7a).

2.     NEHEMIAHS ACTION (5:7B-11)

5:7b-9. After regaining his emotional equilibrium, Nehemiah confronted the situation head on. First, he rebuked those who were violating Yahweh’s instruction not to charge their own people interest (cf. Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-38; Deut. 23:19-20). Money could be loaned (Deut. 15:7-8) but not to gain interest from another person’s distresses. Second, calling a large meeting, Nehemiah pointed out the inconsistencies of their behavior compared with what he and others in exile had done personally to help their brothers. He and others had already purchased (redeemed) some indentured Hebrews who were sold to foreigners (cf. Lev. 25:47-55). But now the opposite was happening; Hebrews were selling their fellow Hebrews into slavery.

Also YAHWEH’s reputation was at stake. This immoral and unethical behavior was bringing reproach on the One who had delivered their country from both Egyptian bondage and Babylonian Captivity. So he exhorted them to live in the fear of . . . YAHWEH (i.e., to trust, obey, and serve Him) and thus avoid the reproach of their Gentile enemies.

5:10-11. Nehemiah’s final action was intensely personal. He referred to his own example and that of others who were already helping those in need by lending them money and grain. He was already doing something about the problem. So he was not asking the people to do something he was not exemplifying in his own life.

Some Bible translations and commentaries suggest that Nehemiah was admitting his own guilt of charging interest on his loans. This, however, seems inconsistent with his high leadership qualities and his charge to the nobles and officials about their guilt (v. 7).

Nehemiah then asked those guilty of exploitation to return what they had taken from others. Mortgaged fields, vineyards, olive groves (the groves are mentioned here for the first time; they were not referred to in vv. 3-5), and houses were to be returned (perhaps with the income made from the grain, new wine, and oil from those fields), charging interest (usury) was to stop, and the interest received from the loans was to be returned. The interest was a 100th part, that is, one percent a month. He emphasized the urgency of this exhortation by asking them to act immediately.

3.     THE PEOPLES RESPONSE (5:12-13)

5:12-13. No doubt Nehemiah was pleased when the people responded to his exhortations. But knowing that words are cheap and easy to say on the spur of the moment under public pressure, he made the guilty leaders (nobles and officials; cf. v. 7) take another step—to take an oath affirming that they would do what they had said. The priests witnessed the oath-taking. Nehemiah visualized for them the grave consequences that would come if they lied to YAHWEH. Shaking out the folds of his robe (cf. Paul’s action in Acts 18:6), which served as pockets, he asked that YAHWEH similarly shake out of His house . . . every person who failed to keep his oath. This gesture indicated rejection, something like shaking the dust off one’s feet (Matt. 10:14; Acts 13:51).

G.     Nehemiah’s service as governor (5:14-19)

Presumably sometime while the city wall was being rebuilt, Nehemiah was appointed governor of Yahudah (Judah). This was the highest position of leadership in the nation at that time.

Later, as Nehemiah wrote this historical account of his years in Jerusalem, he evidently inserted these observations (vv. 14-19) about his perspective on that leadership position. Apparently he included these verses here in the narrative because of their relationship to the events described in verses 1-13."
Next we encounter a passage in Ezekiel that focuses on this issue. Each time it comes up it forces us to consider how we treat others, and especially those of our own families, or nation.

Ezekiel 18:7-17 And has not oppressed any, but has restored to the debtor his pledge, has spoiled none by violence, has given his bread to the hungry, and has covered the naked with a garment; 8 He that has not given forth upon usury, neither has taken any increase, that has withdrawn his hand from iniquity, has executed true judgment between man and man, 9 has walked in My statutes, and has kept My judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, says YAHWEH, The Elohim
10 If he begets a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that does the like to any one of these things, 11 and that does not any of those duties, but even has eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbor’s wife, 12 has oppressed the poor and needy, has spoiled by violence, has not restored the pledge, and has lifted up his eyes to the idols, has committed abomination, 13 has given forth upon usury, and has taken increase: shall he then live? He shall not live: he has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him. 14 Now, look, if he begets a son that sees all his father’s sins which he has done, and considers, and does not such like, 15 that has not eaten upon the mountains, neither has lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, has not defiled his neighbor’s wife, 16 neither has oppressed any, has not withheld the pledge, neither has spoiled by violence, but has given his bread to the hungry, and has covered the naked with a garment, 17 that has taken off his hand from the poor, that has not received usury nor increase, hash executed My judgments, has walked in My statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. 

From The Bible Knowledge Commentary:

"Ezekiel 18:6b-8a. The righteous man was also careful to keep the portions of the Law pertaining to his fellow Israelites. He kept himself morally pure. Both adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10) and intercourse during the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19) were prohibited by the Mosaic Law. The righteous man in Ezekiel’s hypothetical case faithfully maintained sexual purity.

Ezekiel’s model Israelite was also careful not to oppress his fellow Israelites. He would not keep collateral for a loan which the borrower needed (cf. Ex. 22:26; Deut. 24:6). He would never commit robbery, or forcibly take anything from a fellow Israelite
Ex. 20:15). He did the opposite; he gave food and clothing to the needy. His concern was how he could help others, not what he could get from them.

If this righteous man loaned something to a fellow Israelite, he did not try to profit on the deal by usury (an exorbitant interest rate). Take excessive interest could be translated ”take interest“ (NIV marg.) in light of the first part of the sentence. The Law prohibited any charging of interest on loans made to fellow Israelites (Deut. 23:19-20); this man carefully followed the Law. He put Yahweh’s Law ahead of financial gain.

18:8b-9. This righteous person was compassionate (not doing wrong) and fair (judging fairly between man and man). He faithfully kept the highest standards of conduct demanded by Yahweh’s laws for His covenant people.

The righteous Israelite would surely live. He would be spared from judgment (cf. 14:12-20) and would not suffer for the sins of others. The vast majority of Jerusalem’s inhabitants were not righteous. Therefore the implication is that they would be punished for their sins.

18:10-13. Ezekiel moved to his second hypothetical situation. Suppose the righteous man has a rebellious (violent) son who commits sins his father had avoided (cf. vv. 11-13a with vv. 8-9).

Yahweh’s verdict on this man was unfavorable. He would be put to death and his blood would be on his own head. The father’s righteousness would not benefit his son (cf. 14:16, 18). This confirmed the fallacy of the people’s proverb (18:2) and the truth of Yahweh’s principle (v. 4).

18:14-20. Ezekiel’s third case continued to follow this hypothetical family. Suppose (cf. ”suppose“ in vv. 5, 10) this wicked son has a son who sees all the sins of his father but does not do such things himself. Instead of following in the sin of his father, this son followed in the righteous path of his grandfather (cf. vv. 15-16 with vv. 6-9).

Yahweh’s conclusion is obvious: He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. A righteous son will not be punished for his father’s evil deeds. But his father will die for his own sin. The proverb being quoted (v. 2) was incorrect. When the people were judged, it was not for the sins of someone in a former generation. Only those who remained faithful to Yahweh would be delivered (v. 19). (By the word live Ezekiel meant escaping punishment in this life. See comments on v. 24.) Ezekiel then repeated his point: The soul who sins is the one who will die (v. 20; cf. v. 4).

Note that one guilty of usury was just as guilty of grievous error as those who committed other offenses, which somehow we seem to feel are "more worthy of death". Yet from YAHWEH's perspective, usury was worthy of death, for it treated others in a manner that was against His will. 

Here, then, are some additional scriptures to consider on this topic:

Exodus 22:25:  If you lend money to any of My people that is poor among you, you will not be to him as a usurer, neither will you lay upon him usury.

Leviticus 25:36 Take no usury of him, or increase: but fear your Elohim (God); that your brother may live with you.

Leviticus 25:37:  You are not to give him your money at usury, nor lend him your food for increase.

Deuteronomy 23:19:  You are not to lend upon usury to your brother; usury of money, usury of food, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:

Deuteronomy 23:20:  Unto a stranger you may lend upon usury; but unto your brother you are not to lend upon usury: that YAHWEH, your Elohim, may bless you in all that you set your hand to in the land where you goest to possess it.

Psalms 15:5: He that puts not out his money to usury, nor takes reward against the innocent. He that does these things will never be moved.

Proverbs 28:8:  One causing his possessions 
to be increased by usury and unjust gain
gathers it for the sake of him
who is showing favor to the weak.

Jeremiah 15:10:  Woe to me, my mother, 
because you have given birth to me, 
a man of strife
and a man of contention to all the earth! 
I have neither lent for interest, 
nor have men lent to me for interest. 
All of them are demeaning me.

Woe is me, my mother, that you have born me as a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent on usury, nor men have lent to me on usury; yet every one of them curses me.

Ezekiel 22:12: In you have they taken gifts to shed blood; you have taken usury and increase, and you have greedily gained from your neighbors by extortion, and have forgotten Me, says YAHWEH, The Elohim.

Are you being adversely affected by "usury" today?
Are you perhaps involved in taking advantage of others through practices of "usury"?
Maybe it's time to re-think what you're doing?

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