Is Charging Interest Wrong?

Should a Christian never charge interest on a loan?
Isn't usury the same as interest?
Should we lend to the poor?

The Bible speaks many times about usury, making one of the first questions needing to be answered: "what is usury?" Before doing so, consider that it must be quite important as the Psalmist's description of a believer, or righteous man, includes lending money without usury...

Psalms 15 A psalm of David. LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? 2 He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart 3 and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, 4 who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, 5 who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken. (NIV)

[Note that some later English translations have completely removed the word "usury" in favor of the word "interest". Part of our consideration here is whether that is a fair substitution.]

Context is everything in Scriptural interpretation. Sometimes the immediate vicinity of a passage provides all we need to understand what is being conveyed; other times the writer assumes prior knowledge of earlier Scriptures, as is the case here. David was one who knew and meditated on God's law (Psalms 1:1-2; Psalms 119:97, 105-106), so his casual reference to a subject taught in the law presupposes an understanding of that foundation.

I find it interesting that the NIV translation leaves the word "usury" in this passage in Psalms, while elsewhere translating the same word as "interest." As such, this double standard makes it difficult for a casual reader to understand that these various texts are in regards to the same subject. The Hebrew word is "neshek (neh'-skek)" which comes from a root word mean to strike, or bite, with a sting (chiefly of a serpent). Literally, that makes usury "something bitten off." While this description does apply to the general idea of charging interest - that a piece of what was owned is bitten off in payment for the loan - it is not all of what is in focus in the law. Consider the introduction to this subject found in Exodus...

Exodus 22:25-27 "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy [afflicted and/or humbled, through true poverty or need], do not be like a moneylender [usurer]; charge him no interest [usury]. 26 If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, 27 because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (NIV)

The whole subject of usurers and usury cannot be divorced from the primary issue; the poor and needy. Adding more weight to its root word, that earlier literal definition of this practice could be expanded to "something maliciously bitten off." While God permitted His people to loan money to those that were poor, God did not want any item taken in long-term pledge (as was common practice on all loans in that day) and He did not want any interest charged to them. As such, this was God saying, if you can't give it to them, at least don't profit from the poor.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. (NIV)

When the clarifications of our passage in Exodus are taken into account, we can better define usury as "the act of charging interest, or taking an item pledge, from someone who is poor," and a usurer as one who does this. Once we understand this scriptural definition, later passages that refer to this word or practice are much easier to understand. For example:

Deuteronomy 23:19-20 Do not charge your brother interest [usury], whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest [usury], but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess. (NIV)

This passage in Deuteronomy doesn't contradict the earlier one by now saying that you can't charge interest to any other Israeli, it is merely clarifying the earlier passage, making it clear that it was permissible to charge interest to any foreigner. In fact, prior to Deuteronomy, Leviticus also makes it very clear that usury was in regards to poor countrymen.

Leviticus 25:35-38 "'If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest [usury] of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend him money at interest [usury] or sell him food at a profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (NIV)

Again, the restatement in Leviticus was not to contradict the earlier, it too provided extra details, including that they couldn't take an end run around this prohibition by making profit off of selling them food, something they need to live. Leviticus still doesn't ban loaning money to fellow Israelites, or expecting repayment of these just loans. The verses which follow even allowed for repayment through labor, not negating God's admonition that the lender must not oppress and fail to care for their needy debtor.

Leviticus 25:39-40 ' If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. 40 'He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. (NASU)

It appears that by the time following the exile, the Israelites had long since forgotten this aspect of the law pertaining to usury, even as their failure to uphold the law had led to their captivity to begin with. The poor who had returned to Israel, to resettle the land, had come to Nehemiah to protest the actions of their wealthier brethren.

Nehemiah 5:1-10 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3 Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." 4 Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others." 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! (NIV)

This passage tells us that even Nehemiah was lending money to these poor people, something that was permitted. The issue was the exacting of usury from these same people, making them pay interest and enslaving them over time through their loss.

Proverbs 28:8 He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest [usury] amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. (NIV)

Using the wording "exorbitant interest" doesn't do the original wording justice, as any interest charged to a poor countryman would be exorbitant. Today's New International Version (TNIV) does better...

Proverbs 28:8 Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. (TNIV)

Ezekiel also describes a righteous man, even as David did in Psalms...

Ezekiel 18:7-9 He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. 8 He does not lend to them at interest [usury] or take a profit from them. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between two parties. 9 He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign Lord. (TNIV)

While it is true that these specific commands of the law were given to Israel and are not binding on the church (having been fulfilled in Christ, see Matthew 5:17 and Galatians 3:25), certainly the principle remains to this day. God wants His people to be generous to the poor.

Galatians 2:9-10 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me [Paul] and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (NIV)

Paul took his eagerness to help the poor beyond merely the physical poor, being willing to preach the gospel to all (the spiritually poor) without charge or burden...

1 Corinthians 9:18-19 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it. 19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (NIV)

The bottom line on this subject is - if I can use a play on words - take interest in the poor. Let's continue to do good for all poor (physically and spiritually), not out of obligation but out of gratitude and love for the One who has saved us and holds everything in His hands.

Proverbs 28:27 He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses. (NIV)

(c) 2005 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.