Are the Land Sabbath and the Jubilee Year still to be observed today? (Part 2)


In this second installment on the questions raised, we are proceeding with answering whether those Old Testament institutions are still of any validity today. In last week’s first installment, we quoted the relevant biblical passages (mainly Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22), and we cited numerous commentaries to show their understanding as to what these passages meant for the ancient Israelites. Now, we are beginning to answer the question as to what they mean for us today.

At the end of the previous installment, we alluded to the fact that we had addressed the issue of the ongoing validity of the Land Sabbath or the Sabbatical Year in previous Q&As, which also quote 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.

In our Q&A, addressing Leviticus 25:1-7, we wrote the following:

“Many commentaries acknowledge the wisdom contained in these verses to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. The Broadman Bible Commentary states, ‘…there were also agricultural advantages in leaving a field fallow once in seven years, to alleviate the exhaustion of the soil…’ Likewise, the Nelson Study Bible points out, ‘A sabbath to the LORD is the same phrase used for the weekly Sabbath (23:3). The people rested weekly from their work; the land was to rest every seventh year from its work. The principle of the land needing rest has been rediscovered in recent years and is practiced in various ways by farmers of many nations.’

“Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agree, ‘This year of rest was to invigorate the productive powers of the land, as the weekly Sabbath was a refreshment to men and cattle…’

“But, how are we to understand Leviticus 25: 5-7? Some claim that these verses teach that the owner of the land was in no way permitted to take for himself what grew in the seventh year (compare Broadman). This view has been correctly rejected by most commentaries, as it does not agree with the Biblical text. For instance, the Nelson Study Bible points out:

“‘Reaping and gathering for storage and selling were not permitted in the Sabbath year. However, harvesting for daily needs was permitted. Since the purpose of these laws was to promote social equality in Israel, anyone, regardless of social standing, was permitted to use anything that grew, wherever it grew. Even the wild beasts of the field are mentioned here, to emphasize that God would provide for every creature. Of course, Israel’s main provision during this time was the bumper crop produced the year before the Sabbath year (vv. 21, 22).’

“The Soncino Cumash concurs, pointing out, ‘In this year you must not think of yourself as the sole owner, but others have an equal right to its produce with you. That which grows on its own accord, without any effort on your part, is permitted.’

“The Ryrie Study Bible also concurs, ‘Every seventh year the land was to have a sabbath, a rest. Whatever grew during the year was freely available to all alike (vv. 6-7). It was also a time of special instruction in the Law of God (cf. Deut. 31:10-13).’

“So does The New Bible Commentary: Revised: ‘In the law of the sabbath rest, the principle is applied to all human beings, whether free or bond, and also to the cattle (Ex. 20:10), to the ox, the ass, or any cattle, as beasts of burden (Dt. 5:14), as well as to the sojourner. Here it is extended to the land. Every seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of solemn rest… from sowing and reaping. The land is to be left untilled and that which grows of itself, called in v. 6 the sabbath of the land (i.e. what the sabbath of the land produces of itself), is to be food for all alike, for the owner and the servant, for the sojourner and the cattle…’

“Leviticus 25:1-7 teaches us important lessons, including reliance on God and sharing our goods with others. Food growing by itself during the seventh year could be eaten by everyone. Applying these principles today, this would be like walking through the forest and finding wild berries that grow on their own accord. In some areas of the world, these could be freely plucked and eaten by the one who is hungry.

“God warned His people not to neglect to obey His law regarding the land Sabbath. Ancient Israel and Judah refused to carry out God’s command to let the land rest every seventh year. God prophesied that Israel and Judah would go into captivity, if they were not to obey His laws. ‘Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall rest – for the time it did not rest on your sabbaths when you dwelt in it’ (Leviticus 26:34-35).

“Because of their disobedience of God’s laws, ancient Israel and Judah actually went into captivity. 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 states, ‘And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon…, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate, she kept Sabbath…’

“Today, the modern tribes of Israel and Judah do not obey their God, either, including God’s command to grant their land rest every seventh year. The prophecy in Leviticus 26 is dual. As it was fulfilled in the past, so it will be fulfilled again in the future…”

In our Q&A, addressing fruit trees during the Sabbath Year, we wrote the following:

“Leviticus 19:23-25 prescribes what we are to do with newly planted fruit trees. This law…is still valid today…

“These verses prohibit the consumption of fruit from a NEWLY PLANTED fruit tree for the first three years… In the fourth year, the fruit is to be used to praise God… In the fifth year, and all following years, the fruit belongs to the individual — but the individual is of course still obligated to tithe on the increase.

“This law… does not refer to shrubs, bushes, grapefruits, or olive trees. Those ‘trees’ are described in the Bible as field crops, as they have a different production cycle. The distinction is shown in the law of gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). It is also shown in the law of the Sabbath rest (Leviticus 25:3-5; Exodus 23:10-11). Notice carefully that the law of gleaning and the Sabbath rest does NOT refer to fruit trees… Leviticus 25:3-4 instructs us not to sow our field, nor to prune our vineyard during the Sabbath year. (Again, this passage does not refer to fruit trees.) We are also told, in verses 7 and 8, that the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for us and our livestock and other beasts during the Sabbath year.”

Leviticus 25 shows that the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee or Fiftieth Year are closely connected.

We read in Leviticus 25:8-14:

“And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible remarks:

“A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you,…. Which, clearly shows, that not the forty ninth year was the year of jubilee, as many learned men have asserted, chiefly induced by this reason, because two years would come together in which were no sowing [and] reaping; but that God [who] could cause the earth to [bring] forth fruit for three years, Leviticus 25:21, could make it bring forth enough for four years; and in order to make their sentiment agree with this passage, they are obliged to make the foregoing jubilee one of the fifty, and begin their account from thence; but this could not be done in the first account of the jubilee… ye shall not sow; in the year of jubilee, which shows also that this could not be the forty ninth year, which of course being a sabbatical year, there would be no sowing, reaping [etc.], and so this law or instruction would be quite needless.”

In the Jubilee Year, according to Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary, “… besides the common rest of the land, which was observed every sabbatical year (v. 11, 12), and the release of personal debts (Deu. 15:2, 3 [Year of Release]), there was to be the legal restoration of every Israelite to all the property, and all the liberty, which had been alienated from him since the last jubilee… The property which every man had in his dividend of the land of Canaan could not be alienated any longer than till the year of jubilee, and then he or his [offspring] should return to it, and have a title to it as undisputed, and the possession of it as undisturbed, as ever…”

We wrote the following in our Q&A regarding the Jubilee Year:

“In Old Testament times, God established a system whereby the poor would not be in perpetual poverty… Notice that the Jubilee Year began on the Day of Atonement. This annual Holy Day points at a future time when mankind will be released from the captivity of Satan and from the oppression of this present evil world. At the time of ancient Israel, the Jubilee Year designated a release from all debts and a repossession of the land which had been initially allocated to the debtor.”

In our Q&A on bankruptcy, we wrote this:

“There are numerous Biblical passages which, judging by their spiritual implications, allow for [declaring bankruptcy]. These passages deal with God’s institution for ancient Israel of the ‘Sabbath’ and the ‘Jubilee’ Year.

“(1) On the ‘Sabbath Year,’ that is, at the end of every seventh year, ‘debts of fellow Jews [correctly: Israelites] were to be canceled’ (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 24th ed., p. 139). One needs to note that this was an automatic release of debt, by God-given law. It was not required that an agreement was reached between creditor and debtor, or that the creditor agreed to release the debt of the debtor. Quite to the contrary, the debts had to be released every seventh year, whether the creditor liked it or not. This was not just a postponement of debts, either; it was, rather, a cancellation of debts.

“Notice Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 9: ‘At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor SHALL RELEASE IT; HE SHALL NOT REQUIRE IT OF HIS NEIGHBOR OR HIS BROTHER, because it is called the Lord’s release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you SHALL GIVE UP YOUR CLAIM TO WHAT IS OWED TO YOUR BROTHER… Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye will be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing [knowing that by the time of the seventh year, the lender or creditor would never receive back what he gave] and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin to you.’

“References to the Sabbath Year can also be found in Exodus 21:2, Nehemiah 10:31, and in Jeremiah 34:14. The release of debt was to occur automatically, without the necessity of an agreement between creditor and debtor. An interesting application of these principles can be found in Nehemiah 5:1-13.

“(2) In addition, every fiftieth year, God’s civil law for ancient Israel demanded that ANOTHER release be granted. This was, again, not a matter of choice or agreement between creditor and debtor, but automatic. Halley points out on p. 139: ‘Jubilee Year was every 50th year. It followed the 7th Sabbatic Year, making two rest years come together. It began on the Day of Atonement. ALL DEBTS WERE CANCELED, slaves set free, and lands that had been sold returned.’

“The Year of Jubilee is mentioned in several places, for instance in Leviticus 25 and Numbers 36:4. It is associated with the proclamation of ‘liberty’ (Leviticus 25:10) and referred to as the ‘Year of Liberty’ in Ezekiel 46:17. In Leviticus 25:24, 28, 39-41, it is stated: “‘And in all the land of your possession you shall grant redemption of the land… But if he is not able to have it restored to himself, then what was sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the Year of Jubilee, and in the Jubilee it shall be RELEASED, and he shall return to his possession… And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you…, [he] shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you — he and his children with him — and shall return to his family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers.’

“The New Testament does not abolish the principles set forth in these Scriptures. In fact, Jesus came to preach liberty, as expressed in the Year of Jubilee, at His first coming (Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:17-21), applying it to total freedom of God’s people, including freedom from all sickness, disease, sin, death, and every curse (compare, for example, Edward Chumney, ‘The Seven Festivals of the Messiah,’ p. 147). It is true that there are New Testament Scriptures describing how creditors freely forgave their debtors (compare, Luke 7:41-42; 16:5-8). These additional Scriptures do not negate the principle, however, that debts can be forgiven by law and in God’s sight, regardless of whether the creditor is agreeable to such cancellation or not. In conclusion, the concept of declaring bankruptcy is Biblical under certain circumstances.”

In addition, as alluded to above, land was not to be sold forever. It had to be returned to the previous owner in the Year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25:15-16 explains that the price of the property or crops had to be determined based on the number of years left until the Jubilee Year.

Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary writes:

“What was to be done in that year extraordinary; besides the common rest of the land, which was observed every sabbatical year (v. 11, 12), and the release of personal debts (Deu. 15:2, 3), there was to be the legal restoration of every Israelite to all the property, and all the liberty, which had been alienated from him since the last jubilee… The property which every man had in his dividend of the land of Canaan could not be alienated any longer than till the year of jubilee, and then he or his [offspring] should return to it, and have a title to it as undisputed, and the possession of it as undisturbed, as ever (v. 10, 13): ‘You shall return every man to his possession’; so that if a man had sold or mortgaged his estate, or any part of it, it should then return to him or his heirs, free of all charge and encumbrance. Now this was no wrong to the purchaser, because the year of jubilee was fixed, and every man knew when it would come, and made his bargain accordingly.”

From all the foregoing, we can clearly see that the Sabbatical Year or the Land Sabbath or the Year of Release, as well as the Jubilee Year, were laws for the nation of Israel, which were indeed related to the Land of Canaan. They are of course not enforceable today, on a grand scale, as every nation today has its own laws which may quite differ in regard to cancellation of debts, long-term “employment” relationships, transactions of real property, or even the cultivation of farm land. Still, as will be explained in the next installment, the Church of God has consistently taught that certain PRINCIPLES can and should be applied as much as possible by Christians today.

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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