Read Chapter VI - Financial reform by Nehemiah of Usury A Scriptural‚ Ethical and Economic View , free online book, by Calvin Elliott, on

After seventy years of captivity of the Hebrews in Chaldea an edict was issued by Cyrus the king permitting their return to Judea. The most earnest and devout had been restless and homesick in the strange land. The restoration was led by Zerubbabel who accompanied by about five thousand of the most devout men from the various families, made their way over the long return to their former home. This was only about one-sixth of the captive population. Many preferred to remain in the land they had now adopted, and where some had been prospered, and some were perhaps less fervent in their religious zeal. This fraction of the people, however, determined to re-erect their temple and to cultivate the fields again that were given to their fathers and to rebuild the nation, the tradition of whose glory never failed to stir their hearts.

Eighty years later another company under the priest and scholar, Ezra, authorized by Artaxerxes, joined the first colony that had returned to re-occupy their own land.

A few years later another company was led by the patriot, Nehemiah. Nehemiah was in an honorable and lucrative position in the first court upon earth, yet he grieved over the misfortunes of his own people, and especially over the reported distress of the returned exiles. He sought leave of absence and a commission to return and co-work with his brethren for their complete re-establishment at Jerusalem.

The leave of absence was cheerfully granted and a broad commission given to take with him any who wished to return. The revenues of the king were placed at his disposal and the governors of the provinces were ordered to assist and further his work. A large company of the earnest and devout returned with him, confident of his protection and in sympathy with his mission. He deliberately reviewed the work to be done, made careful plans and was greatly successful.

The people were obedient. They cheerfully endured the privations and dangers in their devotion to their country, and in the hope of retrieving the fortunes of their depressed people.

Enemies appeared, who threatened to estop their work, but some worked while others watched, with arms in hand, ready to defend. Some wrought with one hand and held a weapon for ready defence in the other. Nehemiah and his aides, and many of the people, did not take off their clothes, but were on duty constantly so devoted were they to the cause in which they were engaged, regaining their homes and re-establishing the worship of their fathers and rebuilding the nation.

But there was a strange interruption in this patriotic work. A sordid covetousness possessed their nobles and rulers. While the people were absorbed in their patriotic service, these persons were planning successfully to despoil them.

A cry of distress came to the ears of Nehemiah. The people found, now that they had made the sacrifice and suffered deprivations and cheerfully given their labors for the common good, they were deprived of their blessings and enslaved.

This enslavement was not to foreign rulers, but to those of their own blood. A division had grown up among their own kindred. Some had grown rich and become their masters. Others were in hopeless poverty. The distinctions came gradually or grew up among them, possibly unobserved: the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer, until the nobles held their lands and were selling their sons and daughters as chattels.

This condition was hopeless, after all their struggles for nearly a hundred years to re-establish their institutions. Neither they nor their children could, under those conditions, enjoy the fruit of all their efforts. This was no fault of theirs. There had been times of dearth and harvest failure, when some with large families were in need. The king’s tribute, too, was heavy upon them and some were not able to pay and they were compelled to borrow, but had to give mortgages upon their land as security. Now lands, homes and all, had passed to the creditors and they were despondent and helpless.

This cry caused Nehemiah great distress, but Nehemiah was not like Ezra, a devout and learned priest, but without executive power, who in a like position gave way to unmitigated grief. Nehemiah was equally patriotic and conscientious, but he was also a strong leader and an independent commander. He did not call together the nobles and rulers charged with oppression and ask them what he should do. He had none of their counsel. He took counsel with himself, his own conscience, his own judgment, and worked out an independent, individual policy which he should pursue.

His sympathy was with the suffering people, and he determined to espouse their cause and to correct their wrongs. He then called the nobles and rulers and charged them to their face with oppression. He laid “the ax at the root of the tree” and charged the fault to their covetousness, to the exacting of usury or interest. It was this, he declared, that had brought them to wealth, but driven others to poverty. He demanded reparation. When they were slow to yield, he called a convocation of the people and aroused them to a due sense of the wrong they had been enduring, and laid bare the sins of the rulers and nobles. He showed the oppression by comparing their sordid and greedy conduct with the unselfish, self-sacrifice of himself and others for the common good. While he and the patriotic people were busy with hand and brain in rebuilding the nation and fighting the enemies, these usurers were busy getting in their work of ruin, gathering the property into their own hands and enslaving the patriots.

The usurers were not able to withstand this onslaught of the chief commander and the aroused people, and they made no reply. Their conduct had so evidently been contrary both to the letter and spirit of their own law, they were compelled to yield and to say meekly, “We will do as you have said.”

Then he stated the terms and conditions of the reform he would institute.

1. They must return the pledges they had taken for debts, without reserve. The people must not be deprived of their land, tools, or instruments of production. The foreclosure of mortgages must be set aside and the people again given possession of their lands.

2. Interest must be returned or credited upon the debts. If the interest equaled the debt, then the debt was fully discharged. If more than the principal had been paid, then it must be returned in money or in the product of lands taken in foreclosure, the wine or oil or fruits and grains must be returned. Thus only could the wrongs be corrected and righteous adjustment be made.

There then followed a general restoration of pledges and a cancelling of debts that had been paid once in interest, and a repaying of any surplus.

3. They must take a solemn vow that this sin shall henceforth be unknown among them. The law against usury or interest must henceforth be carefully obeyed. These distinctions that had grown up among them must disappear forever, and the cause of the poverty of the many and the wealth of the few must be shunned.

To these conditions the usurers assented, made ashamed by the conduct of the noble patriot in contrast with their own selfishness, though they had not yielded until awed and compelled by the indignation of the people, which Nehemiah had enkindled against them.

This positive enforcement of the law against the taking of increase on any loan, makes unmistakably clear the interpretation of the law by the devout, earnest, sincere, God-fearing Hebrews, down to the close of the Old Testament Canon.