Connecting Lending Practices to the Fear of the Lord (Nehemiah 5:1-5:19)
Nehemiah’s wall-building project was threatened, not just from the outside, but also from the inside. Certain wealthy Jewish nobles and officials were taking advantage of economically difficult times to line their own pockets (Nehemiah 5). They were loaning money to fellow Jews, expecting interest to be paid on the loans, even though this was prohibited in the Jewish Law (for example, Exodus 22:25). When the debtors couldn’t repay the loans, they lost their land and were even forced to sell their children into slavery (Neh. 5:5). Nehemiah responded by demanding that the wealthy stop charging interest on loans and give back whatever they had taken from their debtors.
In contrast to the selfishness of those who had been taking advantage of their fellow Jews, Nehemiah did not use his leadership position to enhance his personal fortune. “Because of the fear of God,” he even refused to tax the people to pay for his personal expenses, unlike his predecessors (Neh. 5:14-16). Instead, he generously invited many to eat at his table, paying from this expense from his personal savings without taxing the people (Neh. 5:17-18).
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In a sense, the nobles and officials were guilty of the same kind of dualism we have just discussed. In their case, they were not waiting passively for God to solve their problems. Instead, they were actively pursuing their own gain as if economic life had nothing to do with God. But Nehemiah tells them that their economic lives are of utmost importance to God, because God cares about all of society, not just its religious aspects: “Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies [to whom the nobles had forced the sale of Jewish debtors as slaves]?” (Neh. 5:9). Nehemiah connects an economic issue (usury) with the fear of God.
The issues of Nehemiah 5, though emerging from a legal and cultural setting distant from our own, challenge us to consider how much we should profit personally from our position and privilege, even from our work. Should we put our money in banks that make loans with interest? Should we take advantage of perks made available to us in our workplace, even if these come at considerable cost to others? Nehemiah’s specific commands (don’t charge interest, don’t foreclose on collateral, don’t force the sale of people into slavery) may apply differently in our time, but underlying his commands is a prayer that still applies: “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (Neh. 5:19). As it was to Nehemiah, God’s call to today’s workers is to do everything we can for our people. In practice, that means we each owe God the duty of caring for the cloud of persons who depend on our work: employers, co-workers, customers, family, the public and many others. Nehemiah may not tell us exactly how to handle today’s workplace situations, but he tells us how to orient our minds as we decide. Put people first.
The question of whether the Bible prohibits lending money at interest has a long and contentious history in Christian theology. See Theology of Work Project's article, Finance Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.