I’ve mentioned before that some of the Bible scholars believe that Moses is expounding or explaining the Ten Commandments in this part of the book of Deuteronomy.
So, the first commandment forbids us from putting anything or anyone before the Lord our God. We’re to love, trust and fear him above all other things. And so, in chapters 6 to 11 Moses emphasised how the people were not to forget the Lord, but were to love him with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. The second commandment, forbidding idols, is about how we should worship the Lord. And so, in chapter 12 Moses commanded the people to worship the Lord in the right place and in the right way. The third commandment forbids us from misusing the Lord’s holy name. How chapters 13 and 14 connect with that commandment is not immediately obvious, since in chapter 13 Moses instructed the people on what to do if anyone ever tempted them to forsake the Lord; and in chapter 14 he gave them instructions on what to eat and what tithes to bring to the Lord. However, the connection seems to be that the way we honour the Lord and his holy name is by remaining committed to the Lord and by living holy lives, choosing what is good and rejecting all that is evil.
In the fourth commandment, the Lord commands us to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Lord has given us six days each week for work and recreation; and we’re to set apart the seventh day for rest and for worship. Now, the Lord gives different reasons for keeping the Sabbath Day holy. In Exodus 20, the reason for working for six days and for resting on the seventh day was because the Lord created the world in six days and he himself rested on the seventh day. So, we ought to follow the pattern set by God when he made the world in the beginning. However, in Deuteronomy 5, the reason for working for six days and resting on the seventh day is because once they were slaves in Egypt where they had no rest, but were forced to work continually. And the Lord rescued them from that kind of existence. And so, every seventh day, they could stop their work and enjoy a day of rest, remembering that the only reason they can enjoy rest is because of the Lord, who had saved them from their slavery. And so, in the book of Deuteronomy the emphasis is not on creation, but on redemption. The Lord has redeemed them; he has rescued them and freed them from a life of slavery in Egypt to enjoy freedom in the Promised Land.
And that should help us to see the connection between the fourth commandment and today’s two chapters, because in these two chapters, Moses refers again and again to how the Lord redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt. So, because the Lord freed them from slavery in Egypt, they’re to free one another from debt and they’re to free one another from slavery. And the Lord also commanded them to keep these festivals in order to remember and to give thanks to the Lord, who set them free from their bondage in Egypt and who was bringing them to the Promised Land where he promised to bless them abundantly.
And, of course, the Lord God sent his only Son into the world to redeem us, to rescue us, from our sin and misery. And through faith in Christ we receive one spiritual blessing after another while we make our way to the heavenly Promised Land.
Debts and Slavery
And so, in verses 1 to 18 of chapter 15, Moses instructed the people about freeing one another from debt and from slavery.
At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts, says Moses. So, just as all of them were set free from their work every seventh day, so every seventh year they were to set one another free from debt. According to verse 2, every creditor shall cancel the loan he made to his fellow Israelite; and so, he shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed. There’s some disagreement among the scholars over what is intended here. Some argue that the only thing this law required was that the repayment of debts was suspended for a year. So, the debt was not cancelled completely, but only suspended to allow the debtor breathing space to get back on his feet. Another view is that Moses was commanding creditors not to cancel the debt, but to give back land that was given as a pledge for the debt. In other words, if I owed you money, I might give you some of my land as a pledge or guarantee that one day I’ll repay the loan. However, in the seventh year, my land is returned to me. I must still repay the debt, but at least I have my land back. However, it’s probably likely that the traditional interpretation is the correct one and that the Lord was commanding his people to cancel debts completely in the seventh year. And so, can you imagine the joy in the land whenever the time for cancelling debts was proclaimed? If you’ve ever been in debt, and if you’ve ever had to worry about how to keep up the repayments, then you can imagine the joy the people of Israel experienced whenever the time came for debts to be cancelled.
However, according to verse 3, this law only applied to loans made to fellow Israelites; and they could still require repayment of loans made to foreigners.
Verse 4 is interesting, because in it the Lord proclaimed through Moses that there should be no poor among them. And there should be no poor among them, because the Lord was giving them the land as an inheritance; and he would richly bless them in the land, so long as they were obedient to him and were careful to follow his commands. In fact, the Lord would so bless them, that they won’t need to borrow from any of the other nations, but instead will be able to lend to the other nations. The other nations won’t ever rule over Israel, but Israel will rule over the other nations, because of the Lord’s blessing.
Of course, we know that the people were not obedient to the Lord. They did not follow all his commands. They all like sheep went astray and turned to their own ways. And so, the wonderful ideal which the Lord presented to them here — that there would be no poor in the land — never happened. After all, didn’t the Lord Jesus himself say in the gospels that they would always have the poor with them? And so, what the Lord promised here never took place, because the people kept sinning against the Lord, so that instead of receiving his gracious reward, many of them suffered poverty. But even when they suffered poverty, and had to borrow from one another, at least they could look forward to the seventh year when the time for cancelling debts was proclaimed.
And in verses 7 to 11, Moses commanded the people to be generous to one another. Don’t be hard-hearted and tight-fisted towards your poor brother, we read in verse 7. Instead of keeping tight hold of your money, open your hands and lend freely to your needy neighbour. And the Moses warned them not to hesitate from giving loans when the time for cancelling debts wasis coming. You know, if there are six years until the time for cancelling debts, then I can expect to receive back most, if not all, of what I’ve lent you. But if there is only one or two years until the time for cancelling debts, then chances are I won’t receive back very much of my loan to you. But don’t think that way, says Moses. Give generously to one another. Give without a grudging heart. And if they obey the Lord like this, then they could expect him to reward their obedience to him, because he would bless them in their work. There will always be poor people in the land, we read in verse 11. So, the Lord knew that the ideal of verse 4 would not be realised in their time. There would always be poor people among them. But since that’s the case, be open-handed towards the poor and help them.
Those who are poor might sell themselves as slaves. So, if I owe you a great deal of money which I can’t repay, I might offer to work for you in order to pay off the debt. That’s what verses 12 to 18 are about. Whenever this happens, the debt-slave is to be released in the seventh year of their service. So, even if they haven’t repaid their debt in full, they’re to be released anyway. And whenever the debt-slave was released, the one he served was to be generous towards him, so that the debt-slave didn’t leave empty-handed. Instead of leaving with nothing, so that he became a beggar, the master was to supply him liberally from his flock and his threshing-floor and his winepress. Mose was saying to them: since the Lord has blessed you with an abundance of good things, then you must bless your needy neighbour who served you as a slave.
Of course, a debt-slave might be willing to remain in his master’s service. He may love his master and his family and be happy working for him. In that case, the master was to pierce his ear. Presumably they were making a covenant with one another: one was promising the other that he would serve him always. In that case, piercing the ear was a sign of the covenant between them.
However, if the debt-slave wants to go free, don’t consider it a hardship, says Moses. Don’t resent him for wanting to be free. After all, he served you for six years and the Lord will bless you for your obedience to him.
So, the people of Israel were to be kind and generous to one another. Debts were to be cancelled every seven years and debt-slaves were to be released every seven years. There would always be poor people among them, but instead of mistreating the poor, they were to be kind and generous to the poor. After all, they themselves were once slaves in Egypt, where they were mistreated by their masters, so that they cried out in their misery. And at that time, the Lord was kind to them, coming to rescue them from their slavery. And he graciously and freely gave them life in the Promised Land. And so, since the Lord had been good to them, redeeming them from their slavery, giving them the Promised Land, they were to be kind to each other, cancelling their debts and giving good gifts to one another.
Before we turn to verses 19 to 23, let me give you the background to this section. In the days when the Lord rescued his people from Egypt, he said to Moses that every firstborn male should be consecrated to the Lord, because every firstborn male — whether man or animal — belonged to him. That meant every clean firstborn male animal was to be offered to the Lord as a sacrifice, while every unclean firstborn male animal and every firstborn male son was to be redeemed. In other words, they were to offer something else — a substitute — to the Lord in the place of unclean animals and their firstborn sons. And the reason for this law was because on the night of the Passover, when the Lord killed every firstborn male among the Egyptians, he spared the firstborn males among the Israelites. And so, they now belonged to him.
The Lord refers to that law in verses 19 to 23 of chapter 15. They were to set apart the firstborn males of their herds and flocks; and instead of putting them to work, they were to offer them to the Lord at the tabernacle or temple. Whatever they offered the Lord had to be perfect; so animals with a defect could not be offered. Such animals could be eaten at home as part of an ordinary meal, so long as they remembered to drain it of its blood. But clean firstborn male animals without any defect must be eaten before the Lord as part of an annual festival. It was a time of rejoicing before the Lord, remembering how he had redeemed them, or freed them, from their slavery in Egypt.
And this takes us to chapter 16 where Moses refers to three of the festivals they were to observe each year before the Lord.
First, we read about the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, both of which took place annually in the first month of the Jewish year. The Passover was held on the fourteen day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread was held over the following seven days. Both of these festivals were established at the time of the Exodus: the Passover commemorated the night when the Israelites painted the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, so that the angel of the Lord passed over them and did not kill their firstborn sons. And on that very night they were released from their captivity in Egypt. Because they left in a hurry, they had to eat unleavened bread — bread without yeast — because there was no time to wait for bread to rise. By celebrating the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread each year, the people remembered God’s grace and mercy and how he redeemed them from their bondage. According to verse 5, they were to offer the sacrifices for the Passover before the Lord in the tabernacle or temple. Up until this time, they celebrated the Passover in their homes or tents. But once the Lord had chosen one place to worship him, they were to celebrate the Passover there.
Next we have the Feast of Weeks which, according to verse 9, took place seven weeks from the time they begin to put the sickle to the standing corn. Putting the sickle to the standing corn is a way to refer to the Feast of Firstfruits, which was another annual festival which we read about in Leviticus. Both the Feast of Firstfruits and the Feast of Weeks were harvest festivals. The Feast of Firstfruits took place at the beginning of the harvest; the Feast of Weeks took place at the end of the harvest. By observing these two days, the people gave thanks to the Lord for his kindness to them. And since the Lord had been generous to them, they were to be generous to those in need. Therefore, according to verse 11, they were to include Levites and aliens, and the fatherless and widows in their festivities. When the feasted before the Lord, they were to invite the poor and needy.
The Feast of Weeks was held on the day after the seven weeks. Since seven sevens are 49, the Feast of Weeks was held on the fiftieth day. And so, it’s also known as the Day of Pentecost (the number five in Greek is pente).
And the third feast Moses mentions here is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths which took place after they have gathered the produce of their threshing floor and winepress. Elsewhere we’re told it was held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month for seven days. It’s called the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths because the people were to live in booths or huts for the seven days to commemorate how the Israelites used to live in tents whenever the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness. However, in this chapter, Moses emphasises how they were to be joyful before the Lord and they were to celebrate how the Lord had blessed them and their harvest. So, it too was a harvest thanksgiving feast; and it was to be a time of great celebration. And the poor and needy were to be included in their celebrations.
And in verses 16 and 17, Moses reiterates that they were to appear before the Lord for these three annuals festivals. When they came before the Lord, they must not come empty-handed, but with an offering in proportion to how the Lord had blessed them. When they came, they were to offer sacrifices and celebrate before the Lord for his kindness to them.
In the fourth commandment, the Lord commands his people to set aside one day each week for rest and for worship in order to give thanks to him for delivering his people. And since the Lord had delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to give them life in the Promised Land, he therefore commanded them to deliver one another from debt and from slavery and to give liberally to one another. And he commanded them to observe, not only the weekly Sabbath, but the annual feast days, so that they would remember and give thanks to him for setting them free from their bondage in Egypt and for blessing them in the Promised Land.
And while the laws about freeing one another from debt and from slavery were for Israel as a nation at that time, believers in every generation are commanded to love and care one another and to be generous towards one another. And so, in 1 Corinthians 16 Paul commanded the believers in Corinth to set aside each week some money which was to be used for needy believers in other churches. And he wrote about the same collection in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where he taught his readers that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. And so, when we give to help needy believers, we must not give reluctantly or under compulsion, but willingly. And James wrote in his New Testament letter that pure religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress. In other words, we’re to care for the weak and the needy among us. And John in his first letter teaches us to love one another, not in word only, but with deeds, using our material possessions for the good of others. Then, in the book of Acts, we read how those believers who could sold some of their property in order to help those who were in need. They shared what they had so there were no needy persons among them. And the early church provided food for the widows among them. And then, the Lord Jesus gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach us to love our needy neighbour, whoever our neighbour may be. And I could probably go on and mention other parts of the New Testament where we’re commanded to love one another in practical ways and to be generous towards one another. But instead let me mention chapter 26 on our church’s Confession of Faith which is entitled, ‘The Communion of the Saints’. It says:
All saints are united to Jesus Christ, their head, by his Spirit and by faith, and have fellowship with him in his grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. United to one another in love, the saints have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are under obligation to perform such duties, public and private, as promote their mutual good, in both spiritual and temporal concerns.
So, every believer — being united to Christ by his Spirit and through faith — shares in all his benefits. But we’re also united to our fellow believers in love. And so, we’re to share with one another and we’re to help one another, not only in spiritual matters, but also in temporal matters. That is, in matters relating to this life.
And, of course, one reason why you’re to love your fellow believers and to be generous towards them is because the Lord — who redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and who gave them life in the Promised Land — has redeemed you from your sin and misery by Jesus Christ the Saviour and he has promised you eternal life in the Promised Land to come. God has been good to you; and he calls on you to love your fellow believers and to be kind and generous to them, just as he has been kind to you.
And not only are we to love our fellow believers and be kind and generous to them, we’re also to worship the Lord and give thanks to him, just as the Israelites worshipped and gave thanks to him.
They worshipped him by keeping the Passover Feast, giving thanks to God for the night when the Passover lamb was killed and they were set free from their bondage in Egypt. And while we’re no longer required to keep the Passover, you must still give thanks to God for Jesus Christ who is your Passover Lamb, who died in your place to free you from your sin and misery and to give you eternal rest in God’s presence. Though you deserve to be condemned, he was condemned and he died in your place, so that you could have eternal life. And so, just as they worshipped and gave thanks, so must you.
And the Israelites worshipped him by keeping the Feast of Weeks, giving thanks to God for the harvest and for all the good gifts which he had poured out on them in the Promised Land. When they were slaves in Egypt, they had nothing; but in the Promised Land, the Lord blessed them with an abundance of good things. And while we’re no longer required to keep the Feast of Weeks, you must still give thanks to God for Jesus Christ, who has poured out on his church the Promised Holy Spirit and who has filled your life with one spiritual blessing after another. The Israelites gave thanks to the Lord for material blessings; and you should give thanks to him, not only for material blessings, but for all the spiritual blessings which you have received through faith in the Saviour and by his Spirit.
But what about the Feast of Booths? Well, the Israelites kept it in order to give thanks to the Lord for his generosity towards them. But they also kept it to remember that they had once been a pilgrim people, living in tents and travelling through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And while we’re no longer required to keep the Feast of Booths, the truth is that you are a pilgrim, because — having been delivered from your sin and misery by Jesus Christ — you’re now on the way to the Promised Land to come. You’re a pilgrim on the way to your true home in the new heavens and earth. And on the way, we can trust your faithful Saviour to provide you with all that you need and to lead you on the right path, because Christ the Saviour has gone before you to prepare a place for you. And he has promised not to lose any of those the Father has given to him, but to keep them forever. And so, he will keep you and he will help you and provide for you on the way to your eternal home.
‘Remember the Sabbath Day’, the Lord commands. And so, you’re to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy, which means you’re to set it apart from the rest of the week as a day to rest from your work and recreations and as a day to worship the Lord your God. You’re to worship him for redeeming you from your sin and misery by his Son; and you’re to give thanks to him for all his good gifts to you in Christ Jesus. And the Lord also calls you to be generous to your fellow believers and to help those in need according to your ability.
And as you worship the Lord week by week, and as you obey his command to be generous, you can look forward to the day when you will come into the presence of the Lord in the new heavens and earth, where you will enjoy perfect rest forever. And there — in the presence of the Lord in the new heavens and earth — they will be no poor among God’s people, no needy person at all, because in the heavenly land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you and all his people forever and forever. No one will ever be in need, because in his presence there is fullness of joy; and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.