In my first blog, we examined usury in the book of Exodus, and in my second blog, we discussed usury from the context of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But how is this matter treated outside the books of Moses? Let’s turn to texts from Psalms and Ezekiel today.
Usury & Bribery in Psalm 15
In this Psalm of David, the author begins with a question posed in synonymous parallelism: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary, who may live on your holy hill?” (Ps. 15:1). As scholar Peter Craigie notes, “The question is vital, for the answer given to it will affect the questioner in preparation for worship.” The psalmist then answers his question with a series of ten positive and negative conditions. As John Calvin describes, he “describes the approved servants of God, as distinguished and known by the fruits of righteousness which they produce.” These qualities include walking blamelessly, living righteously, and not slandering others. The wise man keeps his vows, despises the vile, but honors those who honor the Lord.
Such a wise way of living also shows up in his relationship to the poor. He “lends his money without usury” (Ps. 15:5), or “he does not put out his money at interest.” Recall the point made previously that the person who receives such a benefice is almost certainly very poor, even destitute. According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, “The poor at times needed a loan to keep themselves from being sold into slavery.”
Both of the last two characteristics of the wise man in this Psalm have to do with the handling of money: usury and bribery. The man who will “live on God’s holy hill” will not charge interest on a personal loan.
Interest & Profits in Ezekiel
During the Babylonian Exile, the prophet Ezekiel twice spoke to the issue of interest or usury. His words in Ezekiel 18:7-8 are reminiscent of the Leviticus passage examined previously, even to the use of the two words nesek and tarbit (here a slightly different form of marbit). The oracle (beginning in 18:1) is well known to readers of Scripture. “What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge?’” (Eze. 18:2, NASB). It is a question that the Lord has instructed the prophet to pose to the people in exile, people who were undoubtedly spouting that proverb, as if to blame their plight on their fathers. Ezekiel then details a list of qualities that the Lord looks for in his faithful people, in a manner similar to Psalm 15.
‘If a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife, or approach a woman during her menstrual period—if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing, if he does not lend money on interest [nesek] or take increase [tarbit], if he keeps his hands from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,’ declares the Lord God (Eze. 18:5-9, NASB).
The quality identified in verse 7, “restores to the debtor his pledge,” refers to “any object demanded by a creditor as a guarantee or surety that the debtor would pay off his debt.” Amos briefly addressed this issue when he spoke of those who commit idolatry while lying on “garments taken in pledge” and “in the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines” (Amos 2:8).
Ralph H. Alexander in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ezekiel discusses how “The wealthy took advantage of the poor, especially finding orphans, widows, and strangers easy prey for their extortion schemes.” Implicitly, Ezekiel is saying that the failure to walk in the right manner was what put the “fathers” of Judah into exile, and the reversal of her fortunes will come only when the “children” learn to walk in this way again.
In Ezekiel 22:12, the prophet again addresses the issue of interest on loans in the context of another oracle on the sins of the nation, beginning with Ezekiel 22:1. “‘In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest [nesek] and profits [tarbit], and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,’ declares the Lord God” (Eze. 22:12, NASB). This statement hearkens back to Leviticus. Here the ones being indicted for actual past crimes are the “rulers of Israel” (Eze. 22:6). In the previous oracle, Ezekiel gave the ideal of how one should live, with only an implied suggestion that they had broken these statutes. By contrast, here is an “ominous” development in the oracle, a case against Jerusalem and her political leaders. This is one of the primary reasons for the exile, in part, the assessment of usury by the leaders of the land. The problem “first and foremost,” according to Old Testament scholar Daniel Block, was the “manner in which power was exercised.” The rulers in Jerusalem had repeatedly violated Torah, and God had sent them into captivity.
Usury Elsewhere in the Old Testament
In my next article, we will discuss one final instance of usury in the Old Testament, from the book of Nehemiah.