Usury is, by modern definition, the illegal practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest. Usury is usually carried out with the intention of the lender, or usurer, gaining an unfair profit from the loan. A modern slang term for a usurer is loan shark.
Somewhat complicating the matter is the fact that, before the creation of usury laws, usury could refer to interest in general. Now, usury refers to exorbitantly (and illegally) high interest rates. The King James Version uses the word usury in its now obsolete sense. For example, in Exodus 22:25, the basic rule regarding interest is “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” (KJV). However, in the English Standard Version, the same verse reads, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.”
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were forbidden from charging “usury,” or interest, on loans to fellow Jews (Deuteronomy 23:19), but they were allowed to charge interest on loans to foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:20). The earlier iterations of this law in Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35–38 make it clear that it deals with loans made to fellow Israelites who were experiencing poverty. Having to pay back the loan with “usury,” or interest, would only put them further into debt and was not beneficial to the economy. Loans to foreigners, however, were considered more of a business deal—such loans were seen as international commerce and therefore allowed. This law served as a reminder to the Jews that helping those in need is something that should be done without expecting anything in return.
Many of the loans we are familiar with in modern times come from banks, and the Bible doesn’t say much about this. While the Bible does not prohibit the charging of interest, it does warn against becoming too concerned with money, telling us that we cannot serve both God and money at the same time (Matthew 6:24). We are reminded that the desire to be rich leads to destruction and that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:9–10).
In addition, God’s wisdom includes a warning not to take advantage of the plight of the poor. “Sharks” who gouge the needy in the time of their distress will not enjoy their spoils for long: “He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor” (Proverbs 28:8, KJV), or, in another translation, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor / amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor” (NIV).