Today’s reading is a long one, but the whole passage can be divided into three main parts. First of all, there’s verses 1 to 7 which are about the Sabbath Year of rest. Then, verses 8 to 22 are about the Year of Jubilee. And then verses 23 to 55 are about redemption.
Verses 1 to 7
There’s the Sabbath Year of rest, first of all. According to verse 1, the Lord spoke to Moses and commanded him to tell the Israelites that whenever they enter the Promised Land they’re to let the land observe a sabbath to the Lord. So, for six years they were allowed to work the land: they could sow their fields, prune their vineyards, and gather their crops; but every seventh year they were to let the land rest. So, every seventh year, they weren’t to sow their fields or prune their vineyards. They weren’t even allowed to harvest what grew by itself in the fields or vineyards.
When they were reaping the crops in the sixth year, some seed might fall into the ground and grow in the seventh year. Or some grapes might grow on their vineyards during that seventh year. But they weren’t allowed to harvest whatever grew like that. Instead, according to verse 6, they could eat whatever the land produces itself. So, they could eat whatever grew naturally or in the wild. Whatever the land produces, we read in verse 7, may be eaten.
Verses 8 to 22
That’s the Sabbath Year of rest, which was to be observed every seven years. Then, according to verse 8, they were to count off seven Sabbath Years. So, seven sevens which is 49. After every 49 years they were to observe a Year of Jubilee. The word ‘Jubilee’ is connected to the Hebrew word for ram or ram’s horn. And, according to verse 9, the beginning of the Year of Jubilee was announced on the Day of Atonement with the blowing of a trumpet which was made from a ram’s horn. And the Year of Jubilee was about liberty. It was about freedom. Do you see that in verse 10?
In what way was it about liberty? Look at verse 13: everyone was to return to his own property. So, if in the intervening years, you had to sell some of your land — land which had been assigned to the people whenever they took possession of the Promised Land — it was to be returned to you in the Year of Jubilee. The land was released, or set free, when the Year of Jubilee came along. Likewise, if you bought someone’s land during the intervening years, you had to return it during the Year of Jubilee. You had to release it or set it free. In that way, the Year of Jubilee was about starting again.
Since everyone knew the Year of Jubilee was coming, the price of any piece of land was determined by how many years it would be until the next Year of Jubilee. The value of the land, you see, was based on the numbers of crops you could grow until the Jubilee. So, if there were only five years until the Jubilee, you would only benefit from five years of crops. You would therefore pay less for the land than if they were ten years until the Jubilee or ten years of crops. Knowing that the Jubilee was coming meant they weren’t to take advantage of one another. That’s what verses 14 to 17 are about.
In verse 18 the Lord instructed his people to be careful to follow his decrees and to obey his laws. We can imagine some of the people being reluctant to give back any land they purchased. Furthermore, according to verse 11, they weren’t to work the land during the Year of Jubilee. So, like the Sabbath Year, they weren’t to grow their crops or harvest the fields. And we can imagine some of the people being worried about how they would survive. So, the Lord instructed them to follow his laws carefully; and if they do, the Lord will ensure that the land will yield its fruit for them so that they will have plenty to eat and will be able to live in safety and without fear.
In other words, they were to trust the Lord to look after them. The Lord then directly addressed their fears in verse 20:
You may ask, ‘What will we eat?’
And the Lord reassured them that he will so bless them in the sixth year that they will have more than enough for the following years. Trust and obey the Lord and he will look after you. The Israelites needed to learn that they’re not to rely on themselves and their own hard work, but they’re to rely on the Lord and on his promises. The Israelites needed to learn that lesson and so do the Lord’s people in every generation. We’re to rely on him, so that even when his commands seem strange to us, and when his will for us doesn’t make sense to us, we’re to believe that he knows what is best and that he will help us if we will only trust in him and follow his decrees.
The Bible commentators tell us that there’s no evidence that the Israelites ever observed the Year of Jubilee. Despite what the Lord had commanded, and despite his promises to them, it seems they doubted his promises and disobeyed his commands. And so, when the Lord Jesus was on the earth, he needed to remind the Israelites that we’re not to worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear, because our loving heavenly Father knows what we need. He who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field is able to look after his people so that instead of worrying about these things, we’re able to give our attention to seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness.
Verses 23 to 55
That’s the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee. The following verses are about redemption: the redemption of property and the redemption of people. In verse 23 the Lord makes the point that the reason any land must not be sold permanently, but must be returned, is because the land really belongs to him. He’s the landowner who lets the land out to his people so that they can work it and benefit from it. But it’s not their land; it’s his land. And therefore he has the right and authority to say what can be done with it. And according to the Lord in verse 24, they must provide for the redemption of the land.
What does that mean? Well, we have an example in verses 25 to 28: a poor man sells some his his property. However, before the Year of Jubilee comes along, his nearest relative has the right to redeem the land, or to buy it back on his behalf. If the poor man’s fortunes are turned around so that he prospers, he has the right to redeem the land himself.
According to verses 29 to 31, things are different when it comes to houses in the city. Furthermore, according to verses 32 to 34, there are different rules for the houses and the land which were owned by the Levites.
Lest anyone be tempted to despise any of their fellow Israelites who become poor, the Lord commanded his people in verses 35 to 38 to help them. They’re to lend them money without charging them interest; and they’re not profit from their plight. Since the Lord was kind to them when they were destitute in Egypt, they’re to be like him and be kind to one another.
From verses 39 to 43 we learn that the Year of Jubilee was not only about freeing land which had been bought, but it was also about freeing people who had to sell themselves to cover their debts. If someone became poor, he might have to sell himself as a labourer. However, according to the Lord in verse 39, they were not to be treated as slaves. Instead such a person should be treated as a hired hand or a temporary resident. In other words, they must be given a wage for their labour. Then, when the Year of Jubilee comes around, they are to be released. Just as the land belongs to the Lord, so the Israelites belong to him. He’s the one who rescued them from Egypt so that they are his people. Therefore he has the right and authority to say what can be done with them.
While they weren’t to treat one another as slaves, they could take slaves from the surrounding nations and those slaves could be kept for life. However, if an Israelite sold himself to a foreigner who lived in the Promised Land, the foreigner was not allowed to keep the Israelite as a slave for life; the Israelites had the right of redemption. If he could not be redeemed by the payment of a price, he must still be released when the Year of Jubilee came along.
There’s the Sabbath Year of rest. then there’s the Year of Jubilee; and then there’s the right of redemption.
Let’s think of the idea of rest, first of all. Every seven years, the land was to enjoy a Sabbath Year of rest. If you think back to chapter 23 — where we read about the various religious festivals which the people were to observe each year — you might recall that there were seven in total, including the Sabbath Day which they were to observe every week. So there were seven festivals when the people were to rest from their work and worship the Lord.
The idea of Sabbath rest permeated the whole of their life: every week, and seven times every year, and every seven years, and indeed every 49 years as well with the Year of Jubilee, the people were to rest. The pattern of life which the Lord gave to his people was designed by him to point beyond this life to the Sabbath rest which all of God’s people will enjoy in the life to come. Every week, seven times every year, every seven years, every 49 years, the people were reminded that this world is not all there is, but there’s a new heaven and a new earth which is coming, when their struggle with sin and sorrow will be over, and they will enjoy perfect peace and rest in the presence of the Lord for ever.
The pattern of their life was designed by God to teach them to look beyond this world to the world to come where they will enter the eternal rest which God himself is enjoying. And the same is true of our life, because every week, when we set aside our work, and come before the Lord to worship him on Sundays, we’re to look beyond this world to the eternal rest which we will enjoy when we come before the Lord in the glory to come. And so, as the writer of Hebrews says, let us make every effort to enter that rest. Instead of hardening our hearts and doubting God’s promises and disobeying his commands, let us maintain a believing and obedient heart.
Let’s now think about the idea of the Jubilee. Every 49 years a ram’s horn was sounded to announce the Year of Jubilee. It was to be a new beginning when those who had sold themselves were set free; and land which was purchased was released.
As I said earlier there’s no evidence that the Israelites observed this special year, but the prophet Isaiah spoke of it in Isaiah 61 in connection with the coming of God’s Special Servant:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.
The ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ is another term for the Year of Jubilee. Isaiah was looking forward to a time when God’s Special Servant would come and would announce the Year of Jubilee when those who are captive would be set free. Well, in Luke 4, we read how the Lord Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and he read from the beginning of Isaiah 61. And when he had finished reading, he said:
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
He’s God’s Special Servant, who was anointed with the Spirit of God, and who had come to announce freedom to those who are slaves to sin and death and Satan. Through faith in him, we’re set free from our bondage; and we’re made new. And through faith in him, we inherit eternal life in the Promised Land to come.
And, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ is our Great Kinsman-Redeemer. He became one of us so that he could give up his life as the redemption price to pay for our sin. We no longer belong to sin, to do what it says, but we belong to God so that we might serve him all the days of our life.
And so, although these laws about the Sabbath Year of rest and the Year of Jubilee and the right of redemption were for the Israelites at that time, the Lord was using these laws to announce the good news of the gospel and the great hope he gives to all who trust in his Son.