Lev 25:1 begins with the familiar phrase "the LORD spoke to Moses", which has been used to mark the start of sections in the book. However, the opening verse of this chapter also mentions that these instructions were given at Mount Sinai. The mention of the location is not random. This is significant because God is on Mount Sinai (c.f. Exo 19). Moses goes to Mount Sinai to meet God and God comes down to meet him there. God meets Moses to give him His law. Anything that God gives Moses is important, much less His law.
Why is it important that the writer opens this section like this? Chapter 24 ended with an account of the stoning of a blasphemer and chapter 25 transits back into giving instructions. The Bible is not one long set of instructions. It has units and subunits, and it requires some thought about how everything is pieced together! The contrast between chapter 24 and 25 is jarring, but this also shows us how God's character has multiple dimensions. He is also not a God that bears grudges.
(A) Every 7 years, Israel celebrates provision and rest (Sabbath year) (Lev 25:1-7)
In this set of instructions, Moses had to talk to the people about"the land that I give you" (Lev 25:2a). This is the Promised Land, and what this means is that God own the land since He cannot give something that He does not own. He reminds Moses that God owns the land and God will give it to them later. The people are merely recipients. This sets the context for the set of instructions that are to come.
The people are told that for 6 years, they are to sow their field, prune their vineyard and gather in the fruits (Lev 25:3). This shows the entire cycle of normal, mundane, repetitive work and labour. They were carry on with normal work and normal life -- start the process of work, carry on working and do what they needed to do.
But the seventh year was to be different. There was to be solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord, and they were not to sow their fields nor prune their vineyards nor gather the grapes of their vines (Lev 25:4-5). The great detailed gone into the instructions of working and rest sets up a clear contrast between the six years and the Sabbath year. The tedium stops in the seventh year, and rest is not just for the people, but also for the land. This is also a Sabbath to the LORD. No matter what they were in the middle of -- sowing, pruning or harvesting -- they were commanded specifically not to work. What is God asking them to do? After all, the Israelites rested every week as they practiced the Sabbath. In fact, we might even be struggling now to imagine such an extended period of rest! What is an important pre-requisite? The whole nation has to make a collective decision to obey and uphold this set of instructions. People in the Old Testament are not supposed to be individuals shining for God in the world. These instructions are not just about teaching a people to behave rightly. God has never chosen a person for himself apart from a people.
God promises that in the seventh year, by letting the land rest, the Sabbath of the land will end up providing food for all Israel, even their slaves and sojourners (Lev 25:6-7). Notice the specificity of this verse! Even their employees -- slaves and sojourners -- and their cattle and their wild animals will be provided for, hence, there is no room to make an economic argument for work in the seventh year. God will provide completely for His people when they rest. When they obey and rest, they will receive the one thing that is counterintuitive with rest -- provision. These verses teach us an important lesson: When God calls His people to rest, He is calling them to trust Him. How can we apply this? Do we have enough rest, and do something as simple as sleeping early? Are you too busy to pray? Are you too busy to sit down and spend time with God? Do you think you could block off one hour for God? The Sabbath year is a constant rebuke for individualistic Christians who think that we can do think on our own. We are called to have a vision for a community that trusts God and depends on His sovereignty. It challenges our ingrained notion that things depend on our hard work! Heb 4:9-11 also exhorts us to work hard at resting. It challenges us to set aside time to rest, and to realise our own limits.
(B) Every 50 years, Israel celebrates redemption, obedience and security (Jubilee year) (Lev 25:8-22)
In Lev 25:10, Moses also teaches the people to observe the Year of Jubilee. In this year, the people were to proclaim liberty throughout the land (Lev 25:10). Slaves are freed in this year and at this point, it is also important to remember that the idea of slavery here is different from the one tied to race that we are more familiar with. Apart from that, in the Year of Jubilee, debts are also cleared. As a result of these laws, 2 things prevent the people from being totally bankrupt in Israelite society -- they will have a part of the land, and the kindness of God to restore their part of the land, which may have been lost somehow. This is a very radical economic and social policy!
Let's take a closer look at how the Year of Jubilee is to be celebrated: From Lev 25:8-17, we learn that:
- There are trumpets on the 10th day of the 7th month (Lev 25:9)
- Liberty is proclaimed (Lev 25:10a)
- Property was returned, and redemption carried out (Lev 25:10b, 13)
- There was no sowing in the land (Lev 25:11-13)
- God had a specific set of economics for His people (Lev 25:14-17)
The trumpets marked and declared the season of celebration. Remember that this is 1.2 million people in the desert. Imagine the infrastructural challenge to pass messages and convey instructions during that time. But this also means one thing, that the people of God therefore live in a certain proximity to one another. They're close enough to hear a trumpet and know that the year of Jubilee is here.
The Year of Jubilee also involves the proclamation of good news. This also shows us that good news is to be published, and not kept as secret knowledge only for some people. God's people are a nation of proclaimers, and the message is also for everyone to proclaim. Once more, we see the emphasis on a collective national identity that takes precedence over individual identity and preferences.
Part of the distinctive celebration of the Year of Jubilee also involves certain economic policies and actions. One important element is the return of property where that which was lost is now returned. This teaches the people that ultimately, God is the owner of the land. As the commentary by Gordon Wenham puts it,
“The theological principle underlying the jubilee is enunciated: the land must not be sold off permanently, for the land is mine. Time and time again the Pentateuch reiterates that it is God who gives Israel the land (e.g., Gen 15:7, 17:8, 24:7, Exod 6:4, Lev 20:24, 25:2, 38, Deut 5:16).”
For this to be obeyed and carried out, each person has to make that decision to give up their personal interest for a larger good and there is a clear cost to this. This also teaches and shows us that redemption is free to the recipient but it is always costly to someone. Through this, the people of God are being taught the economics of it, that if you want to go free and be relieved of your debt, someone has to pay. No debt can be forgiven without someone absorbing it. Would you pay so your brother could go free? Would you inconvenience yourself for someone else in your church to live a better life? Furthermore, in not sowing during this period, the people of God were being taught to trust God for their provisions. This trust also extends to their relationship with one another, as they are explicitly told not to wrong one another in their business dealings.
The Year of Jubilee paints for us a picture of equality and fairness. But in Lev 25:18, we also see how God pre-empts the concerns of the people, and repeatedly uses the word "securely) to emphasise how He will take care of them (Lev 25:18-19). Their obedience ensures that things will turn out smoothly. We see here that God's Word and their obedience to what He says will result not in reward, but security. They, like us, would be tempted to hedge their bets in order to preserve themselves and secure their future. It would definitely be tempting to sow and gather when they are commanded not to, or not to return the land that originally belongs to a fellow Israelite. But in His instructions, God is also trying to teach them that this disobedience will actually lead to them to lose the very things they sought to keep. In the same way, we are tempted to not obey because we are seeking security. Our own hearts can deceive us. We are tempted to play games with God's Word, and say that these verses cannot be applied to real life. We anticipate how the one who obeys this will end up giving and losing everything, and find himself at the bottom of the pile. Pragmatism often threatens to rear its ugly head. How can we deal with this?
Our answer, surprisingly, lies in the closing verses of this section. In Lev 25:20, God addresses their doubt (and our questions)! He promises to provide for them, not only for the seventh year, but all the way to the ninth! God promises to take care of them abundantly and gives more than they can imagine. The New Testament equivalent lies in Luke 11:11-13, where God tells the people that if they, sinners as they are, know how to take care of their children, what more a perfect, loving, wise, good God! The simple principle is: Trust God in the Jubilee year for there is security in obedience. Disobey Him and we'll end up losing everything you seek to guard.
We know this, but everything in our heart tells us not to trust God. We read Lev 25:1-22 and thinks that it sounds perfect, and is impossible. In some sense that is true, because it is merely a picture of something that is to come. In Luke 4, Jesus proclaims that He is the one that makes Lev 25 possible. Jesus enables a rest from striving. He came to proclaim liberty for slaves and has done everything necessary. Lev 25 is meant to point us to Jesus Christ, and not be a passage that forces us to live in this way without Him. We need to take our eyes off from ourselves and rest in Jesus, because He is our Jubilee Year. This is the God of our obedience and the God of our security and trust. What is God saying to you today?