5 Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” 3 There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” 4 Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and [a]we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.”
6 Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. 7 I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. 8 I said to them, “We according to our ability have [b]redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? 10 And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. 11 Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this [c]promise. 13 I also shook out the [d]front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this [e]promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this [f]promise.
Prior to captivity, the Jews had observed a year of Jubilee, where all debts were cancelled and land returned to the original owners. But now, the nobles were even charging interest on their loans, which was forbidden by the law. The provisions of the law around debt and lending prevented abuse of such things, and was intended to maintain balance, so that folks didn’t get greedy for the gains that came with money lending.
Nehemiah was rightly angered by these actions, and asked the wealthy nobles to show kindness to their brothers. He was really asking no more than the law required, and it is a lesson for us also. These people should have been working together, but instead they were divided by the act of lending, which made (literal) slaves out of their fellow Jews.
We would do well to learn from the principles God gave the Israelites, that lending to our friends or family is nothing but a recipe for broken relationships. When we seek to benefit off the backs of those less fortunate, we may look generous at first, but eventually resentment creeps in and sours the deal.
Likewise, for those tempted to borrow to make things work, it is nothing but a trap. While you may not become an actual slave like the indebted Jews, the mindset is the same. And it takes a lot of strength and tenacity to escape the pit of debt. God put boundaries on lending for our good, and ignoring them is not something to take lightly.