Leviticus 25:8-12. And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field.
The Jubilee is an institution full of instruction, considered simply in reference to the immediate purposes which it was designed to serve for Israel. The most obvious of these purposes was to instill in them a habitual recognition of their dependence on God, and of His sovereign, inalienable right to bestow upon them possessions on any terms, and to dispose of these possessions in any way that seemed good to Himself. If it led them so to recognise His supremacy and absolute propriety in all they had, the effect would be a life of faith on His Word, because they must feel that they had nothing on which they could reckon for the permanency of their possessions but His promise. And this life of faith would be a life of obedience, because they could have no confidence in the fulfilment of God’s promise unless they acquiesced in the terms on which that promise was given.It was not the only ordinance of the Mosaic economy which had for its object the same effect, though it was perhaps the most remarkable. We read of three great feasts, or festivals: the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, at each of which all the males of Israel were required to appear before the Lord God, in the place where He should put His name. At first sight, there may appear to have been no other difficulty in complying with this command than the inconvenience in undertaking a long and perhaps very fatiguing journey. But after the establishment of Israel in Canaan, they were surrounded by powerful and inveterate enemies, and large, warlike bodies of the original inhabitants of the land dwelt in the very midst of them, eager to take any opportunity of wreaking their vengeance on those who had forcibly – and as they no doubt thought, unjustly – taken possession of their country. We cannot then fail to perceive that it was a very perilous thing for them to leave their wives and children, their sick brethren, their aged and infirm parents, not to speak of their flocks and herds and all their worldly substance exposed defenceless to the assaults of powerful enemies.
Yet the command was imperative that all the males who were able – all who could defend their homes from the inroad of bitter and revengeful enemies – should leave their homes unprotected, receiving, however, this security from the Lord Himself: “Neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year”. No doubt this was ample security, the pledged promise of Him who is the Supreme Ruler in heaven and on the earth beneath, and exercises a most holy, wise and powerful control over all His creatures and all their actions. But it could awaken no feeling of security in the minds of the people except as they believed it. No outward provision was made for the protection of the families and flocks of those who went to present themselves before the Lord. God said He would so control the hearts of the enemies of Israel that they would not desire the land in the absence of those who could resist them. But they were required implicitly to rely on this promise, believing that an agency unseen by mortal eye would lay a restraint on the adversaries who would otherwise have laid waste their land. So peremptorily were the people of God in the old time required to rely exclusively on His simple word, or, in the emphatic language of the apostle, to “walk by faith, not by sight”.
And so, in like manner, were they required to act by another ordinance, recorded in Exodus 23, and repeated in the preceding context: “When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field . . . but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard”. At first sight perhaps, this commandment might be even more startling to the people, for they could hardly fail to inquire how they were to subsist during the seventh year if they were neither to sow their field nor prune their vineyard. Accordingly God was graciously pleased to anticipate this fear and give them an assurance which, if they implicitly believed it, would effectually remove that fear: “If ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase; then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years.”
This was indeed a very large promise, absolutely securing to them much more than was actually necessary for supplying the absence of the seventh year’s produce. But it could remove their fears only as they believed it, and they were thus required to rely exclusively on the divine faithfulness for a supply which no efforts of their own could have secured, and for which they saw no outward provision. No doubt, when the sixth year arrived and they saw their fields bringing forth as it were by handfuls, they would feel relieved by such a clear proof of God’s faithfulness, and would thus be prepared for leaving their land unsown during the seventh year, without the dread of famine or of scarcity. In this respect, the trial of their faith regarding the rest of their land during the seventh year, might not be so severe as in their being required to leave their homes thrice a year without any visible security for the protection of those whom they left behind, and no security at all but the simple promise: “Neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year”.
But though they had thus a clear proof of the fulfilment of God’s promise before they must leave their land untilled, yet that promise had a great deal to contend with in the carnal desires and unbelieving suggestions of a corrupt heart, as the promises of God still have. Though they had ample means of subsistence, their covetousness might prompt the question, What necessity is there for such a sacrifice? In this spirit they might gradually encroach on the commandment, and believe that they would be possessed of greater abundance by disregarding it. And they did come so to reason and to act, for the violation of this ordinance was expressly assigned as one of the main causes of the terrible judgement which overtook them when they were carried into captivity, so that “the land rested and enjoyed her sabbaths”, “because it did not rest in their sabbaths, when they dwelt upon it.”
Whatever the people of Israel might make of the ordinance, it befitted the sovereignty of God, as the proprietor of all things in heaven and on earth, thus to require from them a distinct recognition of His supremacy, and of their dependence. But it was also a very gracious appointment, fitted to keep alive in their minds a grateful recollection of all the wonderful works He had done on their behalf, and to furnish them with a permanent proof of His unceasing watchfulness over them. And if they had thus lived by faith on the simple word of God, in opposition to the carnal reasonings of their unbelieving hearts, what a glorious testimony would they have borne in the sight of the heathen to the sovereignty, power and faithfulness of the only living and true God. And how truly might they have said, “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for?”
These remarks are equally applicable to the Jubilee. This, being itself a seventh or sabbatical year, was of course subject to all the regulations of that institution. During that year they were not to sow, nor reap, nor gather the grapes of their vineyard. Whatever the land produced of itself might be used by any one who found it in the field. But, in addition, the Jubilee was to be introduced with the sound of the trumpet throughout the land; liberty was to be proclaimed to all slaves and prisoners, and all estates which had been sold, or otherwise alienated, were to be restored to their former owners or to the survivors of the families to which they originally belonged.
Such an ordinance as this would never have been adopted by Israel or any other people of their own accord, as it was in various ways opposed to the selfishness of human nature. It must have been peculiarly offensive to those whose influence was greatest – ungodly men who had accumulated great possessions. We have abundant evidence of this in the history of Israel in the days of their degeneracy. Considered as an assertion of God’s sovereignty over Israel, His exclusive claim to their service, and His absolute right of propriety in the land He had given them, nothing could be better fitted than the Jubilee to keep them in mind of what they were too prone to forget: that they had no right to any portion of Canaan but on such terms as God in His sovereign good pleasure might see fit to allot to them. Such was the reason He Himself assigned for the regulation by which estates were to return to their original possessors in the year of jubilee: “The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers, and sojourners with me”.
Nor was the institution more befitting the divine majesty than it was gracious towards Israel; for what could be more conducive to their true happiness than an ordinance which provided for their living together as one great family, dependent on the same Father, and each having the same security for his portion – even the immediate grant of the Proprietor of all things? And how high the honour conferred upon them in exhibiting to the nations around them such a proof of God’s sovereignty, power and faithfulness as no other people had ever manifested! For, so long as they observed these ordinances – so contrary to human wisdom – they enjoyed not only internal peace and prosperity, but protection from foreign foes. Thus, notwithstanding their sabbatical years and years of jubilee, they required no outside aid to supply their wants. Nor did any man desire their land when they went to appear before the Lord their God thrice in the year.
But Israel degenerated from what they were in the time of Joshua; they forgot the mighty works which God had done for their fathers; and they became weary of living by faith on God’s word as their all-sufficient security. They thought that their own wisdom could provide more largely for their wants, and that their own strength could better defend them from their enemies. Adopting the practices of the nations around them, they thought themselves wiser and safer by acting as others did, little dreaming that, when they forsook God’s ordinances, their strength also departed from them and they were indeed like other men.
But though they ceased to testify for God, He did not cease to testify by them to Himself. When they refused to confide in His word, and so glorify Him by their prosperity, He vindicated His truth in their adversity; for when they dishonoured His Sabbaths, and refused to the land her seventh year’s rest – and when, in the year of jubilee, they denied to their servants the liberty which the Lord of their land had solemnly secured to them, then He said to them by the mouth of His prophet, “Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine: and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth”.
The institution of the Jubilee was thus fitted to impress Israel with a sense of their dependence on God, and to inculcate faith in His word as their only security and the only powerful motive also to cheerful obedience. But it is plain that another purpose of that ordinance was to give the greatest possible prominence to the Sabbath. The injunction to keep the Sabbath holy is more frequently repeated in Scripture than perhaps any other precept – a plain intimation that men are prone to become specially impatient of it. And the history of all ages has afforded abundant melancholy evidence that it is so.
Not only was the precept itself frequently repeated, clearly intimating how essential God saw it for maintaining His fear and worship, He was pleased to make the institution of the Sabbath the foundation of other institutions, whereby its value as a privilege, and its binding nature as a law, might be presented more prominently. The appointment of the seventh year’s rest to the land was first introduced, in Exodus 23, in close connection with the Sabbath command: “Six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat” – that is, gather freely of what was produced naturally in the fields, which would not be little in Canaan, especially with God’s blessing; “and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner shalt thou deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard.” And then is added a renewal of the Sabbath commandment: “Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest; that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger may be refreshed”.
But the intended connection between the weekly Sabbath and the seven years’ rest to the land is still more emphatically marked in Leviticus 25, where that year is expressly called the sabbath of the land: “When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” In like manner, the institution of the Jubilee is expressed in language obviously designed to connect it with the Sabbath. It is not simply said, Thou shalt number seven times seven, or 49 years, and then cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound. The language is: “Thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound.” Care was thus taken to connect the seventh year and the year of jubilee with the Sabbath, as that which gave them a character of sacredness and solemnity; while in their turn they served to show very impressively what an important place the Sabbath occupied in the sight of God.
It is plain that the divine purpose was to set forth that holy day as an emblem of His rest, and a pledge to His people of their entering into that rest. Nothing therefore could more clearly disclose the ungodliness and unbelief of the people of Israel than their profanation of God’s holy day, after all that He had said and done to show them its inestimable value. Accordingly, nothing is more frequently referred to by the prophets – who were sent to remonstrate with them on their backsliding – than profaning the sacredness of the Sabbath. “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words; then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it”.
But although much was done to impress Israel with an abiding sense of the value of the Sabbath as a pledge of the rest which remaineth for the people of God, we have in the resurrection of Christ a still greater testimony to the Lord’s day, the Christian Sabbath, as a precious privilege. We no longer need a sabbatical year or a jubilee to remind us of that privilege, for what could give sacredness and value to that day in our estimation, if Christ’s rising from the dead and entering into His rest did not do so?
But the Jubilee may suggest very solemn reflections. Had that ordinance been still in force, many among us would have witnessed it, having lived for seven times seven years. Therefore many of us have spent Sabbaths which amount to seven years. Have these been the happiest and most highly-valued years of our life? If we now had a jubilee to celebrate, would it be one of our subjects of thanksgiving that we had been favoured with so many seasons of repose from the toil of this sinful state and been refreshed by a foretaste of that rest which remaineth for the people of God? Perhaps none of us can seriously entertain this question without feeling that we have reason to mourn, for we have grievously come short of honouring that holy season as we ought. But is there not reason to fear that multitudes would be disposed to reply: Seven years of Sabbaths! What a waste of time and loss of productive labour to the community! Perhaps few would have the hardihood to express this sentiment in so many words. But I fear that many are secretly now saying with backsliding Israel of old, “When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn; and the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat?”
But the passage we are considering was also designed to typify the preaching of the gospel, the proclamation of the glad tidings of an almighty Saviour, and a full, free remission of the penalty of sin and emancipation from its power. The trumpet of the jubilee was sounded on the day of atonement, that great day on which the high priest entered the holy of holies, when rites were observed which more clearly prefigured Christ’s death than any of the other types by which He was presented to the faith of the Old Testament Church. We therefore cannot avoid seeing in the institution of the Jubilee a very lively representation of what followed the resurrection and ascension of Christ, when, as the high priest of His Church, He entered into heaven, there to appear in the presence of God for them.
But we have the authority of Scripture for thus connecting these two things as type and antitype, for it was in obvious allusion to the Jubilee that Christ, by the mouth of His prophet, thus spoke: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me; because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”. Most literally was this fulfilled, not only by Christ Himself during His public ministry, but when, after His resurrection, His disciples went into all the world and preached to every creature the gospel, even the glad tidings of liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound – and when, after His ascension, He poured out His Holy Spirit upon them, qualifying them to make this proclamation to men of every tongue and country and kindred.
Nor was there merely an external resemblance between the proclamation of the Jubilee and the preaching of the gospel, the one being universal in Israel, the other universal in the world at large. They resembled each other also in the essence of what they proclaimed, for never was freedom more fully announced to the bondmen of Israel than spiritual liberty is now proclaimed by the gospel to every sinner. It is true that the gospel proclaims a spiritual emancipation, and men, being naturally insensible to the evils of spiritual bondage, may receive the announcement of deliverance with very different feelings from those with which bondmen in Israel heard the trumpet of the Jubilee. But men’s reception of the gospel does not alter its nature. It is essentially an unconditional proclamation of “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”. To the weary and heavy-laden soul that so receives it, it will bring a far more glorious deliverance than any prisoner experienced on being delivered from earthly bondage.
We now live under a perpetual jubilee, under the unceasing sound of that trumpet which proclaims glad tidings of great joy – glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will towards men – for no sinner listens to this blessed Book without being personally commanded to “believe the record that God gave of His Son”, “that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son”. And to those who have believed the glad tidings of the gospel – who have been delivered from a sense of unforgiven guilt and the dread of coming wrath, and have tasted the blessedness of that liberty wherewith Christ makes His people free – the passage before us can hardly fail to suggest the thought of a still more glorious jubilee, when the release of their bodies from the prison-house of the grave shall be proclaimed, when the trumpet shall sound and this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality, and “then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory”.
In the prospect of that day, there may sometimes be more of solemn awe than joyful anticipation, for it is a solemn thought that “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that all who sleep in the dust shall hear His voice and come forth and stand at His judgement seat. But faith should realise that the Judge is the compassionate Saviour on whom we have been taught to rely. If, by faith, we are familiar in thought with the glory of His second coming, that event will become more and more the subject of joyful hope, a source of consolation amidst all our present trials. So it is intended to be, as the Scriptures plainly testify, for it was to comfort suffering Christians that we find the apostle so frequently alluding to the glories of the resurrection day. “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
1. Reprinted with abridgement from Christ in the Old Testament, vol 2. Free Presbyterian Publications are considering republishing this four-volume set. Gordon (1786-1853) was latterly minister of the Free High Church in Edinburgh and one of the most prominent preachers of his time. It was under his ministry that Alexander Moody Stuart was converted.