The Sabbatical Year

1 The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.Leviticus 25:1-7 ESV

The concept of rest is important to God. He established the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath, a day of rest when the normal activities of labor were set aside in order to worship Him.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. – Exodus 20:8-11 NLT

In a real sense, every day of the week was set aside for the worship of God, because sacrifices were made daily at the Tabernacle. But what set the seventh day apart was the complete cessation of work. Rather than performing their normal routines, the Israelites were to take 24 hours to rest in the provision of Yahweh.

The origin of the Sabbath day can be found in Exodus 16. One month after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel entered the wilderness of Sin and began to grumble about their lack of adequate food. They took their complaint to Moses and Aaron, who responded, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning, for he has heard all your complaints against him. What have we done? Yes, your complaints are against the Lord, not against us” (Exodus 16:8 NLT). And God delivered on that promise.

That evening vast numbers of quail flew in and covered the camp. And the next morning the area around the camp was wet with dew. When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. They had no idea what it was. – Exodus 16:13-15 NLT

God gave them exactly what they needed, but His gift came with conditions. Each family was told to “gather as much as it needs” (Exodus 16:16 NLT) but God put a limit of two quarts for each person in the household. And the text tells us that “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed” (Exodus 16:18 NLT). This gathering of food was to take place every day of the week, except for the seventh day. God had other plans for that day of the week.

On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much as usual—four quarts for each person instead of two. Then all the leaders of the community came and asked Moses for an explanation. He told them, “This is what the Lord commanded: Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord. So bake or boil as much as you want today, and set aside what is left for tomorrow.” – Exodus 16:22-23 NLT

There would be no gathering of quail or manna on the seventh day, but God made more than adequate provision for that day’s needs. He gave a double portion on the sixth day. Moses provided the people with clear instructions regarding the seventh day.

“Eat this food today, for today is a Sabbath day dedicated to the Lord. There will be no food on the ground today. You may gather the food for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath. There will be no food on the ground that day.” – Exodus 16:25-26 NLT

Yet, despite Moses’ warning, the people went out on the seventh day in search of food, only to find that none was there. They labored in vain. There was no need for them to search for food because God had already provided all that they needed. This led God to reiterate His regulation concerning the Sabbath.

“How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why he gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days. On the Sabbath day you must each stay in your place. Do not go out to pick up food on the seventh day.” – Exodus 16:28-29 NLT

God later codified this command by making it a permanent statute in the Decalogue. The seventh day was to be a perpetual and permanent law among His chosen people. By resting on the seventh day, the people were placing all their trust in God. They were acknowledging His role as their provider and resting in His promise to meet all their needs. And in Exodus 25, God expands the concept of sabbath rest to include the seventh year. But this command would not take effect until the people entered the land of Canaan. By articulating this new law while the people were still in the wilderness of Sinai, God was assuring them of His plans to fulfill the covenant promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was going to keep His word and give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance, and when the arrived in the land, they would be expected to practice a sabbatical year.

“When you have entered the land I am giving you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath rest before the Lord every seventh year. For six years you may plant your fields and prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest. It is the Lord’s Sabbath” – Leviticus 25:2-4 NLT

Just as He had met their needs in the wilderness by providing twice as much food on the sixth day of the week, so too He would meet their needs for every seventh year. This command must have sounded strange to the ears of the Israelites. The thought of allowing the land to sit idle for an entire year would have come across as odd and nonsensical. What would they do for food? How would they survive an entire year without doing their normal activities of planting, pruning, and harvesting? Yet God was simply taking the concept of the sabbath day and applying it on a much grander scale. What He would do in a week could be done in terms of years as well. But this command was going to require even greater faith on the part of the people.

What sets this command apart is its emphasis on the land itself. Not only were the Israelites to be the beneficiaries of the Lord’s gracious provision of rest, but so too was the land.

“…during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest.” – Leviticus 16:4 NLT

The land must have a year of complete rest. – Leviticus 16:5 NLT

The land belonged to God and He was protecting it from overuse and abuse. In another sense, He was letting the Israelites know that He was their provider, not the land. He was the one who met all their needs. Their labor was not necessary. Their help was not needed. And to prove His point, God ordered that the people of Israel cease all labor during the seventh year.

Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards during that year. And don’t store away the crops that grow on their own or gather the grapes from your unpruned vines. – Leviticus 25:4-5 NLT

Some Israelites probably saw this as a kind of extended vacation and looked forward to the arrival of that first sabbatical year. It’s safe to assume that others were perplexed by this command and worried about how they would survive an entire year without doing their part to cultivate and care for the land. God’s command must have come across as illogical and impossible to many of the Israelites. The whole concept of receiving something for doing nothing was as strange to them as it is to us. We live by the old adage, “You don’t get something for nothing.” We adhere to the idea that nothing is free in this life. Phrases like, “No pay, no play” and “No pain, no gain” permeate our vocabulary. In our world, everything comes with a price, so you have to either work, pay, or contribute something for anything you want to have.

But in God’s economy, things work differently. He told the Israelites that the land would meet all their needs without any help from them.

“The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.” – Leviticus 16:6-7 NLT

Their lack of labor would have no impact on the fruitfulness of the land. Crops would continue to grow. Vines would still produce grapes. Trees would still yield more than enough fruit to meet their needs. Their flocks would find ample grass on which to feed and grow fat. The land belonged to God and He was its ultimate caretaker. This chapter points back to the early days of creation when God placed the first man and woman in the garden He had created for them.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. – Genesis 2:8-9 NLT

God had created the garden to meet the needs of man, and He gave man the responsibility of tending the garden.

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. – Genesis 2:15 NLT

But Adam and Eve didn’t actually produce the fruit of the trees. They had not created the garden or any of the plants that existed within it. They were simply stewards of God’s creation. Their ability to work was never to be seen as the source of their sustenance. The garden belonged to God and He would use it to sustain and bless His children – as long as they obeyed.

And as long as the people of Israel kept God’s command regarding the sabbatical year, they would continue to enjoy His faithfulness as expressed in the fruitfulness of the land. Their needs would be met. While resting from their labors they would learn to rest in the provision of God, and He would not let them down.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

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