Are the Old Testament Laws regarding the ancient “Sabbatical Year” or the Land Sabbath and the Jubilee Year still in force and effect today?


As this is a very broad subject, we will provide answers in several Q&As. This Q&A constitutes the first installment, to be continued next week.

The purpose of this first installment is NOT to answer most of the questions about the Land Sabbath and the Jubilee Year. Answers will be provided in future installments. In this installment, we will mainly be quoting from commentaries to show the different positions applied to the issues—which are somewhat reminiscent of SOME opinions and concepts which are occasionally raised by some Church members as well.  In subsequent installments, we will discuss the substantive accuracy or inaccuracy of many of those statements.

Let us first look at the biblical provisions in detail, and analyze what exactly they provide. In that context, we must realize that there are ritual temporary laws (which are not in force for us today), spiritual eternal laws (which are immutable and always effective for man), physical and spiritual laws binding today for individuals, and laws which were given to the nation of Israel in the Promised Land, which were in force while God was their Supreme Ruler, and which may not presently be in force (although underlying spiritual principles might be). We need to ascertain to which category the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year injunctions belong.

The first mention of the Sabbatical Year or the Land Sabbath can be found in Exodus 23:10-11, long before Israel entered the Promised Land. We read:

“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

Please note that this provision is immediately followed, in verses 12-19, by the injunction regarding the weekly Sabbath and the annual Holy Days.

Let us now review several statements, opinions and interpretations, as set forth in commentaries regarding the nature and purpose of the provisions of the Land Sabbath, as referred to in Exodus 23.

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says: “This is the first mention of the Sabbatical year; the law for it is given at length in Leviticus 25:2…”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds: “And six years thou shall sow thy land, The land of Canaan, given to their ancestors and to them, and which they were now going to inherit…”

Wesley’s Notes write: “The institution of the sabbatical year was designed, To shew [sic] what a plentiful land that was, into which God was bringing them, that so numerous a people could have rich maintenance out of the products of so small a country, without foreign trade, and yet could spare the increase of every seventh year. To teach them a confidence in the Divine Providence, while they did their duty, That as the sixth day’s manna served for two days meat, so the sixth year’s increase should serve for two years subsistence.”

The Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary writes:  “Even in the year of rest they must not think that the sabbath day was laid in common with the other days, but, even that year, it must be religiously observed; yet thus some have endeavoured to take away the observance of the sabbath, by pretending that every day must be a sabbath day…”

We will address the substance of some of these comments in subsequent installments.

The next reference to the Land Sabbath can be found in Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22:

“And the LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you; for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land—all its produce shall be for food…”’”

“’So you shall observe My statutes and keep my judgments, and perform them; and you will dwell in the land in safety. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill, and dwell there in safety. And if you say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, since we shall not sow nor gather in our produce?” Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years, And you shall sow in the eighth year, and eat old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall eat of the old harvest.’”

Again, let us review some statements from several commentaries in this regard.

Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible says: “It may be asked here: if it required all the annual produce of the field to support the inhabitants, how could the people be nourished the seventh year, when no produce was received from the fields? To this it may be answered, that God sent his blessing in an especial manner on the sixth year (see Leviticus 25:21, Leviticus 25:22), and it brought forth fruit for three years.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds: “And now this law did not take place as soon as they came into the land, for it was to be sown six years, and then was the year of rest; and indeed not till after Joshua had subdued the whole land, which was seven years a doing; nor till they were quite settled, and it was divided among them, and every man had his field and vineyard apart, which this law supposes…”

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary agrees, writing: “When ye come into the land which I give you—It has been questioned on what year, after the occupation of Canaan, the sabbatic year began to be observed. Some think it was the seventh year after their entrance. But others, considering that as the first six years were spent in the conquest and division of the land (Jos 5:12), and that the sabbatical year was to be observed after six years of agriculture, maintain that the observance did not commence till the fourteenth year.”

The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament writes: “The omission of sowing and reaping presupposed that the sabbatical year commenced with the civil year, in the autumn of the sixth year of labour, and not with the ecclesiastical year, on the first of Abib (Nisan), and that it lasted till the autumn of the seventh year, when the cultivation of the land would commence again with the preparation of the ground and the sowing of the seed for the eighth year; and with this the command to proclaim the jubilee year on ‘the tenth day of the seventh month’ throughout all the land (Leviticus 25:9), and the calculation in Leviticus 25:21, Leviticus 25:22, fully agree.”

Wesley’s Notes say:  “When ye come into the land – So as to be settled in it; for the time of the wars was not to be accounted, nor the time before Joshua’s distribution of the land among them. Keep a sabbath – That is, enjoy rest and freedom from plowing, and tilling. Unto the Lord – In obedience and unto the honour of God. This was instituted, For the assertion of God’s sovereign right to the land, in which the Israelites were but tenants at God’s will…”

Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary points out: “The law of this chapter concerns the lands and estates of the Israelites in Canaan, the occupying and transferring of which were to be under the divine direction, as well as the management of religious worship; for, as the tabernacle was a holy house, so Canaan was a holy land; and upon that account, as much as anything, it was the glory of all lands. In token of a peculiar title which God had to this land, and a right to dispose of it, he appointed… [that] every seventh year should be a year of rest from occupying the land, a sabbatical year (v. 1-7). In this God expected from them extraordinary instances of faith and obedience, and they might expect from God extraordinary instances of power and goodness in providing for them (v. 18-22)… All these appointments have something moral and of perpetual obligation in them, though in the letter of them they were not only peculiar to the Jews [Israelites], but to them only while they were in Canaan…

“In the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land… This sabbatical year began in September, at the end of harvest… The Jews say they ‘began not to reckon for the sabbatical year till they had completed the conquest of Canaan, which was in the eighth year of Joshua; the seventh year after that was the first sabbatical year…’”

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible states: “The express prohibition of sowing and reaping, and of pruning and gathering, affords a presumption in favor of the sabbatical year beginning, like the year of Jubilee Leviticus 25:9, in the first month of the civil year Leviticus 23:24, the seventh of the sacred year, when the land was cleared of the crops of the preceding year.. Its great spiritual lesson was that there was no such thing as absolute ownership in the land vested in any man, that the soil was the property of Yahweh, that it was to be held in trust for Him, and not to be abused by overworking, but to be made the most of for the good of every creature which dwelt upon it.”

Again, we will discuss the substance of these statements in subsequent installments. However, to conclude this first installment, we would like to briefly point out the following:

While many of the above-quoted comments are very good, some statements are misleading and will be addressed and clarified, as we proceed. For instance, the argument, which seems to be associated with some of the comments above, that this was a law which only applied to Israel while in the Promised Land, will have to be rejected. We read, for instance, that Israel was ordered in Exodus 23:10-11, long before entering the Promised Land, to keep the Land Sabbaths (without any reference there to the Promised Land), and in the same context, they were ordered, in Exodus 23:12, to keep the weekly Sabbath (again without any reference to entering the Promised Land).

We addressed the issue of the ongoing validity of the Land Sabbath or the Sabbatical Year in previous Q&As, which we will cite and discuss in the next installment. These Q&A’s quoted numerous commentaries to the effect that they do not feel that the Land Sabbath only applied to the nation of Israel for the time while in the Promised Land, even though it is quite obvious that the provisions only began to be applied sometime AFTER Israel had left Egypt and entered the Promised Land, because, while in the desert, they had no land to cultivate. It should also be noted that there is no indication that any of the provisions regarding the Land Sabbath are mentioned prior to Exodus 23, while there were undoubtedly righteous people who cultivated land. Still, the omission of such provisions is no conclusive evidence that they were not in effect prior to Exodus 23, nor, that they have no validity today.

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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