The Year of Jubilee

“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. 12 For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.

13 “In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. 14 And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. 15 You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. 16 If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you. 17 You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.

18 “Therefore you shall do my statutes and keep my rules and perform them, and then you will dwell in the land securely. 19 The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely. 20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. 22 When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.” Leviticus 25:8-22 ESV

Beginning in verse 9 and ending in verse 55, God begins to unpack yet another national religious observance that He is adding to Israel’s calendar. But this regularly occurring event would only take place every 50 years. The Jubilee Year would occur after seven “weeks” of years which equates to 49 years. The 50th year was supposed to be another sabbatical year, but one that had a greater level of significance.

The Hebrew term for “Jubilee“ is (tᵊrûʿâ) and it can mean “joy, shouting, loud noise, rejoicing.” God’s instructions were that on the tenth day of the seventh month in the 50th year, the ram’s horn was to be blown to start a year of universal redemption. In other words, the Year of Jubilee was to begin on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32). This year was special because it was marked by rest but also by new beginnings that featured a year-long emphasis on release and renewal.

Like any other sabbatical year (every seventh year), the Year of Jubilee featured a divine prohibition against labor. For the entire year, the people of Israel were to rest from all their work in the fields and vineyards, allowing the land itself to rest and be restored.

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.” – Leviticus 25:4-5 ESV

But God decreed that the 50th year would be a time of community-wide restoration that provided release from indebtedness and freedom from bondage. In a sense, it provided every Israelite citizen with a do-over, an opportunity to start anew in life. Old debts were forgiven. Land that had been lost because of bad decisions or financial setbacks was to be returned to its original owner.  Prisoners and captives were to be released. Slaves were to be set free. All labor contracts were to be absolved.

“It provided a general overhaul of economic and social life to restore people and properties to their rightful conditions. It was meant to be a new beginning, a time when all who had failed to maintain their place in society were given a chance to start over and when all who had benefited from such failures released what they had gained.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

At first glance, this passage seems to carry socialist overtones that seem unfair and even unproductive. Why would God decree that land, rightfully purchased, be returned to its original owner? What reason could God have for releasing prisoners who were rightfully tried and justly condemned? It all seems so disruptive and counterproductive. But God states that it is to be a time to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10 ESV).

It’s important to consider how much life would transpire in the space of 50 years. During those five decades, people’s fortunes would ebb and flow. Some would experience financial loss and be forced to sell their land in order to pay off debt. Those without property to liquidate would have no choice but to become the indentured servant of their creditor. Some would commit crimes that resulted in their imprisonment. During this 50-year period of time, a lot of life would occur – some good and some bad. So, God ordained a royal reboot to return things to their original condition. It was, in essence, a year-long festival of freedom.

The Year of Jubilee was not designed to look back or commemorate some past event in Israel’s history. If anything, it was a time to look forward and recognize that God was both just and the justifier of all men. In a large community like that of ancient Israel, there would be countless individuals who found themselves on the losing end of life. They would sin and suffer the consequences. Others would make bad decisions and have to endure the ramifications of those poor choices.

There is an old proverb that states, “But for the grace of God go I.” It carries the idea that no one is immune from making mistakes or committing sins that result in judgment. It conveys a sense of humility that acknowledges one’s own sinful nature but also an awareness of the role that God’s grace plays in the life of every man. None of us are above reproach or impervious to failure. On any given day, anyone could find themselves in a place of suffering, loss, or bondage. When we see another human being suffering, we are to refrain from judgment and, instead, we are to recognize the grace of God in our lives. The apostle Paul was fully aware that he was not above reproach or immune from committing iniquity. In fact, he described himself in rather unflattering terms.

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. – 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 ESV

Paul understood that his work ethic was not the reason for the radically altered status of his life. It had been the work of God and was based solely on the grace of God. And he would later encourage the believers in Rome to consider the amazing nature of God’s grace that transformed their lives by providing them freedom from sin and release from the debt they owed.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 ESV

That is the heart behind the Year of Jubilee. God was not instituting a socialist makeover of Israelite society; He was reminding His people that everything they had belonged to Him. The land was His. The produce in the fields was His. The flocks and herds they cared for belonged to Him. He had graciously shared these divine possessions with His people and now it was time to allow all within the community to enjoy the benefits and blessings of His goodness.

“The relationship of land and people under God is of fundamental importance for understanding the Old Testament and the Jewish people. . . . The Promised Land was a gift from God, not an inalienable right of anyone’s to sell or incorporate as they wished.” – Walter Higgins, Numbers

The people of Israel were supposed to live their lives with the Year of Jubilee in mind. When buying and selling land, they needed to consider the time until the Year of Jubilee when determining the sales price. The proximity of the Year of Jubilee would determine the price of the land because when the 50th year arrived, the land would automatically revert to the seller. Everything was to be negotiated with the Year of Jubilee in mind. And God makes it clear that in the Year of Jubilee, all land was to return to the original owner, which would ensure that the land remained within the tribe to which it was initially given by God. He had divinely ordained the division and distribution of the land and the Year of Jubilee was intended to restore property rights so that each tribe and clan retained their original apportionment.

There was to be no subterfuge or attempts to swindle one another. Everything was to be done fairly, justly, and above board.

“You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 25:17 ESV

God expected His people to treat one another with dignity and respect. The rich were not to take advantage of the poor. Someone who owned property was not to attempt to unjustly profit from its sale by charging an exorbitant price. If the Year of Jubilee was near, the value of the land was significantly lower and the price should reflect that reality.

God knew His people would struggle with this new statute. It would have sounded as unreasonable and unfair to them as it does to us. It raised all kinds of questions in their minds, such as how they were to survive if they were forced to return land that they had legally and legitimately bought. So, God assured His people that He would meet all their needs. No one would go hungry or homeless.

The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely.” – Leviticus 25:19 ESV

God would provide. That is the major theme conveyed by this new statute. By obeying God’s commands, the people would enjoy the providence and provision of God. Every sixth year, God would bless the people with twice as much harvest, ensuring that they had plenty of grain for the sabbatical year. And the same would be true for the 50th year. God would take care of His people. Even with the somewhat disruptive nature of the Year of Jubilee, the people would discover that God could and would take care of every one of His children. By following His commands, they would learn that He alone was their provider. The land was simply a tool He used to accomplish His will. The one who had to relinquish his land would find that his needs were fully met by God. The one who had been forced to sell his land would discover the joy of having his fortunes restored by a gracious and forgiving God. Everyone in Israel would discover the goodness and greatness of their God as they celebrated the Year of Jubilee – the year of restoration and renewal.

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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