By Dr. Bill Patterson
Adam and Tina (not their real names) live in Indiana but spent several years in Missouri. While there they experienced something amazing. They heard the concept of the Year of Jubilee in their small church and it gave them an idea. They decided to apply the spiritual principle in a practical way—they offered jubilee to people who owed them. That’s right. They forgave the debt of others.
It’s not like they couldn’t use the money. In fact Adam and Tina needed the funds to meet some family needs. But they remembered previous years when they had experienced the hardship of owing someone and not yet being able to repay, due to work shortages in their Ozarks community. They remembered how uncomfortable they felt when they bumped into their lenders at the supermarket or the post office or their church. Awkward.
Now the situation reversed. Two significant people in their lives owed them money. The couple noticed that those two acted ill at ease around them and avoided them if possible. Because they valued the relationships more than the repayments, Adam and Tina decided to offer jubilee—a total releasing of the debt.
When the couple explained their thinking with those whom they had helped, both cried. Both had wanted to repay but couldn’t. The borrowers felt a heavy burden lifted from them. Adam and Tina felt a release too. The relationships improved immediately. In fact, since a symbol of God’s unmerited grace had been offered and accepted, the relationships became stronger than before.
Jubilee occurred the fiftieth year after seven cycles of seven years in which Israel’s land and people gained freedom. God explains his command for jubilee:
“Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to his family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields” (Leviticus 25:8-12).
The Year of Jubilee began on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. Some aspects of the Year of Jubilee follow:
Land reverts to the original owner
“In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property” (Leviticus 25:13). Realizing that God owns all the land helps us understand jubilee. God taught the Israelites to remember “the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers” (v. 23). The country of Israel was tied to the land. Even now, God owns the land but he lets his children use it during their lifetimes.
God intended the original distribution of land to remain intact. If the owner had to sell his land and had not the means to redeem it, that land went back to him anyway in the Year of Jubilee. If the original owner had died, it reverted to his heirs on the Day of Atonement in the fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee. (A few exceptions are found in Leviticus 25:29, 30 and in 27:17-21.)
Someone may object, “But I own my home and land. I bought and paid for it.” The answer? Ask that person, “Who will own it in 100 years?” We live on this earth temporarily, a guest of the Lord. Every heartbeat, every breath, and every sunset is a gift of grace from his hand. Ultimately we own nothing. We must learn to hold loosely to this world’s possessions but to hold tightly to the Lord Jesus.
God gave the stipulations that if someone bought land only a few years before the next Year of Jubilee occurred, he would pay less; if he bought many years before the next Year of Jubilee, he would pay more (Leviticus 25:14-17). When striking a deal for land, a person actually bought the right to raise crops only for the number of years until the Year of Jubilee.
Rest for the land and the people
What we have comes from God. We are not to work as if our lives depended on our work but on the Lord who provides for us. Knowing that our provider tells us to rest, we can truly rest, relaxing in the Lord Jesus.
The Year of Jubilee revealed God’s provision for the conservation of the soil (25:11, 12, 18-21). During the Year of Jubilee the Israelites were forced to live by faith, recognizing that the Lord would satisfy their needs. The Lord instructed the Israelites that the “land will yield its fruit” and you will “live there in safety” (vv. 8-22). God told them that he would provide such an abundant harvest in the sixth year that the land would yield enough for that year, for the seventh year, and until the harvest came in the eighth year.
Not only was there rest for the land, but the Year of Jubilee also provided rest for the people. Laboring in the sun exacts a heavy toll. In the years before mechanized agricultural equipment such as tractors, everything on the farm had to be done by hand. The Old Testament farmer plowed the field with mules or oxen. He sowed the field by hand. He removed rocks by hand. He weeded the ground by hand. He harvested with a handheld sickle. He threshed and winnowed the grain to remove the chaff. The farmer’s wife crushed the wheat or barley grains between millstones to make flour. Every aspect of the work proved difficult.
God set aside every seventh year, however, as a rest year for the land, a sabbatical from farming. Then on the fiftieth year came the Year of Jubilee, another year of rest for land and people. During that year of reprieve the farmer (and most Israelites were farmers) rested his body. He also caught up with the lives of his children and other family members. Can you picture him playing tag with his children during times he normally worked? Imagine the joy of that year—and that’s the reason for the name, jubilee.
All Israelites freed from slavery
Just like the land belonged to God, so did the Israelites. Because God considered them his possessions, they could not remain in slavery. If an Israelite found himself in such a difficult predicament that he had to sell himself or a family member into slavery, he or any relative had the right of redemption. If he stayed in slavery until the Year of Jubilee arrived, his owner had to free him then.
Jubilee was the leveler of society. Without large holdings of land it proved difficult to amass great wealth. And no one would stay in poverty because his land would soon be returned. Jubilee was God’s plan to avoid both excessive estates and pauperism. Jubilee was God’s plan to rest the land and the people. Jubilee was God’s plan to redeem his children from slavery.
I find it informative that the Year of Jubilee began on the Day of Atonement. On that most holy day in the Jewish calendar, the people recognized before God that they were sinners and that a blood substitute must be made for their sins to restore their oneness with God.
Of course we also are sinners and we too have a substitute, the Lord Jesus who died in our place to atone for us and to set us free (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sacrifice of Jesus in our place used the Greek term loopos, sometimes translated “redemption.” Loopos was the technical word for when a person bought a slave and then set that slave free. Christ has bought us from slavery to sin and set us free. Paul said, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Christians live in a continual Year of Jubilee, freed from the power and penalty of sin.
Dr. Bill Patterson is a minister and freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.