1 “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. 3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. 4 But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— 5 if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.
7 “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:1-11 ESV
Once the people of God had obeyed the will of God and crossed over into the land of promise, they would enjoy His blessings. But they were not to be content with being the recipients of His He undeserved blessings. They were to pass on the goodness of God to those around them. Moses had already commanded them to care for the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows among them. Now, he addresses the poor and indebted in their midst.
Once again, the point behind all this was that the Israelites, the chosen people of God, live up to their unique status by conducting themselves in a distinctively different manner than all the nations around them. They were not free to treat one another with disdain or indifference. And the needy among them were not to be overlooked, especially when God was busy blessing the nation as a whole.
The first command issued by Moses in this chapter has to do with the sabbatical year. This was closely related to another law given by God concerning the sabbath. It’s found in Exodus 23: 10-11.
“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, 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. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.”
Every seven years, the Israelites were required by God to allow their fields, orchards, vineyards to “rest” by allowing them to remain fallow. to use the bounty provided by God to bless the poor and needy among them. The Hebrew word natash means “to forsake” or “leave” them. For six consecutive years, they were to till, plant, and harvest the land, but during the seventh year they were to allow it to remain just as it was. And anything that grew during those 12 months was to be left for the poor and needy to harvest, whether grain, grapes, or olives.
Another God-ordained law, intended to be practiced on a yearly basis, provided another means by which the Israelites could provide for the needy among them.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 23:22 ESV
When God chose the people of Israel as His possession, He included everyone from every conceivable economic strata. He had been non-discriminatory when He set them apart, and He expected them to treat one another with the same gracious and inclusive kindness. They were never to forget that His choice of them and His loving kindness to them had been totally undeserved. And, earlier in this very same book, Moses made that point quite clear.
“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations!” – Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT
They had no reason to be prideful or arrogant. Their enjoyment of God’s blessings was, in a real sense, in spite of them, not because of them. So, God would not tolerate any display of superiority among them. The rich were not to look down on the poor. The strong were not to take advantage of the weak. The powerful were not to abuse the defenseless. Kindness and compassion were the order of the day. And by living in this way, the Israelites would reflect the very character of God.
Debt was considered a form of enslavement because the one who owed the debt was obligated to pay back the one who made the loan. And failure to settle a debt left the guilty party open to indentured servitude until the debt was paid. The book of Proverbs has some strong words to say about the relationship between the rich and the poor and the lender and the borrower.
Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.
– Proverbs 22:7 NLT
A sad fact was that the poor often found themselves at the mercy of the rich. Their financial state left them little recourse but to cry out for mercy. But as the Proverbs so sadly states: “The poor plead for mercy; the rich answer with insults” (Proverbs 18:13 NLT).
So, God provided clear guidelines for avoiding such ungodly situations. The last thing He wanted was His chosen people being known for their injustice and inequality. They belonged to Him and, as a result, they were to reflect His character. Which is why the prophet Micah wrote:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV
So, every seventh year, God commanded that “every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:2 ESV). There is some debate as to whether this debt forgiveness extended for perpetuity or only during the seventh year, but their is no debate as to God’s intent behind this command: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deuteronomy 15:4 ESV).
God was going to bless them, and the blessings they received were to be shared with all those in their midst, from the richest to the poorest. There was no room or need for greed. There was no place for injustice or the practice of usury. Taking advantage of one another was to be considered illegal, immoral, and unacceptable.
By obeying God’s commands concerning these matters, they would experience even greater blessings from God. He would prevent the nation of Israel from every finding itself on the debtor end of a transaction. Moses assured them, “The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:6 NLT).
But God knew the true condition of the human heart, so He provided further instructions that, hopefully, would prevent the Israelites from abusing the practice of the sabbatical year and the release of debt. As the seventh year approached, God knew there would be those who refused to lend much-needed help to those who were down on their luck. The thought behind their actions was that if they made the loan, there would not be adequate time to collect enough debt payments to justify the expense the incurred. The seventh year would wipe the debt clean, leaving them in the hole financially. The motivation behind their stinginess is painfully apparent and Moses addresses it.
“Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin.” – Deuteronomy 15:9 NLT
As has been the case with every other law or command issued by God, these focus on the heart. God wasn’t just looking for compliance to a set of rules, but a willing commitment to a way of life, which is why Moses warned them: “Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 15:10 NLT).
Moses assures them that poor people will be a permanent part of their community. It is the nature of humanity. People make poor decisions. Others, by no fault of their own, are simply born into poverty. It is their lot in life. But the presence of the poor is not an excuse to treat them as second-class citizens. Their presence among the people of Israel was intended to provide a tangible means for expressing the goodness and graciousness of God – man to man. The Israelites were to be the hands and feet of God, providing for the downtrodden, the destitute, the underprivileged, and indebted among them. No one was to be overlooked. No one was to be treated as unworthy or unlovable. The Israelites were expected to love as they had been loved: Unconditionally and undeservedly.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.