The Bible does not make a distinction between usury and interest, a distinction very common in the financial world today. The Bible does make a distinction in regard to the person who is charged the interest or usury, as we will see; but it does not distinguish between a legal rate (interest) and a rate that is in excess of what is legal (usury).
The biblical terms used to set forth God’s will in this matter of charging for the use of one’s money are vivid and instructive. The Hebrew word has the root meaning of striking with a sting as does a serpent; to bite or oppress with interest on a loan; to exact or extort. The Greek term has the meaning of bringing forth or giving birth; then, to charge interest of usury on money, for this multiplies or breeds more money.
The distinction that Scripture makes pays regard to the person who is required to pay for the use of money or some other item. Briefly, usury may be charged to the stranger (one who is not a brother or sister in the Lord), but not to a member of the household of faith. The biblical teaching on this matter is found in three passages:, “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury”; , “And if thy brother be waxen poor and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him…. take no usury of him or increase: but fear thy God…. thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. I am the Lord thy God which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God”; and , “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury; Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.”
These passages make several important points: 1) Interest or usury may not be charged to the poor. The rule in regard to the poor is that we give them their needs, without charging interest and without thought of receiving the principal back either. 2) These passages do not forbid us from lending to a brother, and receiving interest on the loan, when the brother is not poor but merely wishes to expand his business or property. This occasion was not present with the Israelites who received their portion from God by lot. 3) The stranger may be charged interest, as this is an application of the principle that all things are for our good; God spoiled the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, gave Egypt for her ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for her (). 4). It belongs to God’s sovereignty that He gives people their money and possessions in various amounts, makes them stewards of such things, and He may decide how we dispose of our monies and whom we may charge for the use of it. 5) As the God who has mercy and pity towards the poor, He requires that we also show mercy towards them, and refrain from stinging them with usury.
Many warnings are sounded in Scripture against the desire and practice of squeezing the poor for personal gain. Nehemiah rebukes Judah for exacting usury of their brethren after the return from captivity (). One of the virtues of those who shall abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill is that they “put not their money to usury” ( ). God will take from those that increase their substance by usury and unjust gain, and give it to them that will pity the poor ( ). In Ezekiel 18, where the prophet explodes the notion that “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” and sets forth the truth that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” usury and taking of increase are described as one of the abominations for which each transgressor shall pay ( ). One of the sins for which Israel was scattered among the heathen is that many have taken usury and increase, and greedily gained of their neighbors by extortion ( ). When they did this, they forgot the Lord God and trusted an idol in the form of money. Well does the apostle Paul call covetousness idolatry.
Questions arise in the life of the church regarding borrowing and lending; such a question is the occasion for this word study. Ought Synod loan money to those who labor in behalf of the churches? Ought Synod invest the churches’ money in financial instruments that are not insured against loss? Ought members of the churches loan money for church building projects, receiving again with interest? Opinions vary on these and other questions. But on one point all must agree: the poor must be taken care of, and not be charged one cent for this assistance, nor be required to return any thing.
“He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth to the Lord” (). And the Lord will pay him again, that is, the Lord will repay with high interest! The Lord will reward works of charity and mercy with everlasting life and glory in the new creation. Then rich and poor, bond and free, Jew and Gentile, will inherit riches of salvation in Christ which are beyond calculation and price!