Wouldn’t it be something if the United States Congress and President Obama declared that in 2012 all debts in the United States of America will be erased? Now don’t get all political on me and start hollering about the growing extent and abuse of government under the current administration. Work with me here! If this were to happen, I’m not sure how excited the lenders would be, but I feel safe in saying that the borrowers would throw a party and dance in the streets. It would be a time of immense celebration.
Amazingly, God organized the nation of Israel in such a way that this sort of thing and much more happened every 50 years. It’s called a jubilee. There are many redemptive themes throughout the Scripture, but one of them is certainly the theme of Jubilee. The purpose of this article is to explore briefly the biblical foundation of the Jubilee, describe what a Jubilee entails, and then explain how the Jubilee is linked to us today.
The Biblical Foundation of the Jubilee
The biblical foundation for the Jubilee is rooted in the idea of the sabbath, which is the day of rest observed on the 7th day of the week. Sabbath is first mentioned in Exodus 16:22-23. While Israel was journeying from Egypt to the promised land of Palestine, God provided food from heaven for them. On the sixth day of one week, God told them to gather double what they needed because on the next day, the 7th day of the week, He would provide no food. It was to be a Sabbath. At that time, the idea of a national Sabbath was introduced.
When God began to put forth His covenant with the nation of Israel through the 10 Commandments, He was sure to include an order concerning the Sabbath. The 4th commandment says:
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy, (Ex 20:8-11)
Notice that the reason for the Jewish week—6 days of work and 1 day of rest—was based upon the pattern of God, who did the very same thing during the creation week. So, every week, the people of Israel were to enjoy a Sabbath.
But it wasn’t just the people. God desired for the land to enjoy a Sabbath as well. God instructs Israel concerning this regulation in Leviticus 25:1-5:
- The LORD then spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. Your harvest’s aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather; the land shall have a sabbatical year.
So, the land was to be worked for 6 years and then have 1 year of rest. This 7-year cycle is called a sabbatical and was very important to Israel for grouping history. We today think of history in terms of 10s called decades. Israel thought in terms of 7s called sabbaticals.
God had one more layer that He wanted to add into this Sabbath framework of time. He called it a jubilee. God lays the directions for the Jubilee out in Leviticus 25:8-12:
- You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat its crops out of the field.
The scheme is now complete. At the end of 7 sabbaticals (49 years), there was to be a year of Jubilee. This year is also called the year of liberty/freedom (Ezekiel 46:17), and the favorable/acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 62:1 & Luke 4:19). So, every 50 years one would be celebrated.
Our English word jubilee comes to us from the Hebrew word for “ram.” Within the context of Leviticus 25, it’s referencing the ram’s horn—or a trumpet shaped like a ram’s horn—that was to be blown. Literally then, Leviticus 25:9 could read, You shall then sound a jubilee abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month. While the word is literally speaking of the horn that was used to announce the year, the word jubilee has come to mean a celebration because of all the good things that happen in the Jubilee year.
So what are these good things?
The Benefits of a Jubilee
The Jubilee was a tremendous blessing for the people of Israel because of all the benefits attached to it. Maybe it’s helpful to think of these good things as the 5 Rs of the Jubilee.
1. Release from slavery.
During the year of the Jubilee, any Israelite who had become so indigent that he had to sell himself into slavery would be set free. At any time, the slave had the right to redeem (ie, buy back) himself or to have a kinsman redeem him, but if that was an impossibility due to poverty, he was released at the time of the Jubilee. You can imagine the joy a poor slave felt the day Jubilee began!
2. Return of land.
When Joshua brought Israel into the land, it was divided between tribes and families, and this family had ultimate rights over their part of the land continually. From time to time, an Israelite would become poor to the point of having to sell his part of the land, but just like with slavery, he had a right at any time to redeem the land himself or have a kinsman redeem the land. If the money just wasn’t there though, it would be returned to him any way at the time of the Jubilee. The reason for this return of land is given in Leviticus 25:23-24. Basically, God says the land’s His and that He wants the original family to have it. Of course, beyond simply citing God’s prerogative, this statute also helped assure against continual poverty within a family.
3. Relief from debts.
Surprisingly, the cancellation of debts didn’t happen just every 50 years. It actually happened every 7 years—ie, during the Sabbatical year. We find God’s command concerning this statute in Deuteronomy 15:1-2:
- At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’S remission has been proclaimed.
While there’s no direct instruction about absolving debts in the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25, given the connection of the Jubilee to the Sabbath, the relief of debts is certainly associated with the Jubilee. Furthermore, there is some debate as to whether or not the Jubilee year was actually a separate year from the 7th sabbatical (the 49th year). Some think that the 7th sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee were observed in the same year instead of consecutively. Although I don’t believe this to be the case, if it was, then the relief of debts is directly linked to the Jubilee.
Perhaps the relief of debts is what’s behind the jubilaic language of Isaiah 61:1, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners. Maybe this prisoner in mind is not a criminal but a debtor. Unable to repay, what a joy it would be to be released after being thrown in debtors prison!
4. Rest for the people and the land.
Agriculture is hard on the land and those tending it. Therefore, God ordained that they both have a year of rest and renewal. If the Jubilee occurred in the 50th year after the 7th sabbatical, this scenario would actually mean the land would remain fallow for two years. Both the farmer, which was everybody in those days, and the land would enjoy an extended rest. Rest is one of God’s sweet graces to us!
5. Revelation of faith.
Everything surrounding the Jubilee was actually a test of faith and reliance upon God. Yes, it was a blessing but a test nonetheless. It takes faith in God that He will provide in order to just let a slave upon whom you depend go. It takes faith in God that He will provide in order to cancel debts and give up purchased lands. It takes faith in God that He will provide in order to not plant or cultivate crops for one to two years.
However, God did not leave Israel without a promise concerning their food. Naturally, the people would wonder, “What in the world are we going to eat? Will we starve?” Therefore, God promised in Leviticus 25:18-22:
- You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. Then the land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in.
God’s supernatural blessing of the 6th year’s crops would cover both the Sabbath year and Jubilee year (consecutive or not), and He always comes through on His promises. So, the question mark lay not with God but with the Israelites. Would they show faith in God? The Jubilee revealed who would and would not, and for those who passed the test, it was a great blessing.
All of this sounds very good, but what does the Jubilee have to do with us?
The Jubilee and Us
If one were to read only the Old Testament, you’d get the impression that the Jubilee has only to do with national Israel and nothing to do with us. But we’ve got a New Testament to go along with the old one. Therefore, due to the doctrine of progressive revelation, the Old Testament must be read in light of the New Testament because the New Testament is a later, fuller revelation from God. In other words, the New Testament is authoritative over the Old Testament.
Isaiah 61:1-3 is a beautiful Jubilee passage. It says:
- The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
Verse 2 tips us off that the Jubilee is in mind when it mentions the favorable year of the Lord. Here we see glorious, merciful jubilaic language. The afflicted get good news. The brokenhearted are mended. Captives are liberated. Prisoners are freed. The mourning are comforted with a crown and the oil of gladness. The faint are given a mantle of praise. What beautiful promises from God! Now, the context would seem that this promise of Jubilee is given only to the nation of Israel, especially if you continue on reading the chapter, but the Old Testament must be read and interpreted in light of the New Testament.
It’s in Luke 4:14-21 that we encounter this passage from Isaiah again:
- And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus reads this passage and then basically says there in Luke 4:21, “I’m the agent of the Jubilee, the one who bring these benefits to pass. The favorable year of the Lord is upon you! If you have me, you’ll experience Jubilee!” Man, that statement is colossal! Jesus is saying that the Jubilee set forth in Leviticus for the nation of Israel was simply a type, a shadow, a precursor aimed to prepare the world for the true Jubilee found in Jesus Christ.
Friend, the Jubilee is given to all who will believe on Jesus. In light of Isaiah 61, through Jesus Christ, the afflicted have good news, the brokenhearted are mended, captives to sin are liberated, prisoners of the devil are freed, the mourning are comforted with a crown and the oil of gladness, and the faint are given a mantle of praise. In light of the 5 Rs mentioned above, through Jesus Christ, you are released from slavery to sin; the earth is returned to its rightful and original owner, namely the children of God; you’re relieved from the debt to God your sin has racked up; rest from works is yours forevermore in Jesus Christ; and your faith in God is revealed as you believe on Jesus. If you are in Christ, the reality of the Jubilee is yours, and if you’ve never believed on Christ, it can be yours if you’ll only repent of your sin and believe on Jesus.
The Jubilee has grace, grace, and more grace written all over it! God has done for us what we could not and would not do. This reality is even more stunning if you consider the fact there’s a good chance Israel never actually practiced the Jubilee. They didn’t do it! It was too risky. Their faith was too small, too weak. They kept finding reasons why it didn’t apply to them. But isn’t that the nature of sin? We think our way is better than God’s. Yet God has not left us to our disobedience, Jew and Gentile alike. He has sent His Son proclaiming that the year of Jubilee is upon us. May you know Christ and all His benefits. May you rejoice because your Jubilee is here!