The Year of Jubilee
Mr. Chairman, Governors, Colleagues, Friends, Brothers, and Sisters in the Lord: 2017 is an anniversary year. On July 1st, and indeed throughout the year, we've celebrated the sesquicentennial of our home and native land, and we reflect on what it means to be Canadian. On October 31st, and indeed throughout the year, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and we reflect on what it means to be Reformed. Other anniversaries could be mentioned as well: on April 12th, it was one hundred years ago that Canadian troops won the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War; on August 19th, it was seventy-five years since the Dieppe Raid in the Second World War when nine hundred Canadians were killed in a military offensive known as Operation Jubilee. More personally, 2017 marks the fiftieth wedding anniversary of both my parents and my wife's parents. Judging by the ads in the back of Clarion, they're certainly not the only ones to celebrate their golden jubilee. Perhaps most significantly for us tonight, it's been forty-nine years since General Synod Orangeville decided to establish a Theological College and to appoint its first professors. Forty-nine years — not quite fifty yet, but as we'll see, forty-nine may well be the more significant number. Tonight I would like to speak to you about the Year of Jubilee — its Old Testament setting, its gospel significance, and its ongoing relevance for today. We'll do that in light of the five solas of the Reformed faith.
Let's begin with sola Scriptura, the principle that the Bible as God's revelation is the only and infallible norm for doctrine and life. The law of the Jubilee is part of a larger passage that's explicitly identified as divine revelation. It begins in Leviticus 25:1 with these words: "The Lord said to Moses on Mt. Sinai, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them...''' and then follows a lengthy divine speech that continues right to the end of chapter 26, which concludes with these words: "These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the Lord established on Mt. Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses." This implies that chapters 25 and 26 ought to be read together as a single unit of divine discourse. Chapter 25 speaks first of the Sabbath year in verses 1-7, and then of the Jubilee in verses 8-55. Chapter 26 speaks of reward for obeying the law and punishment for disobeying it. The two chapters belong together.
This is confirmed by their literary structure. The first part of chapter 25 gives the principle of the number seven: "For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops, but in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbath to the Lord." The last part of chapter 26 returns to this principle of seven: "If you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over ... I will scatter you among the nations. Your land will be laid waste and your cities will lie in ruins ... Then the land will enjoy its Sabbath years; it will have the rest that it did not have during the Sabbaths you had in it." In short, the passage about the Jubilee is presented as authoritative revelation in the form of a God-given law that binds the conscience and holds its hearers to account.
The Lord gave this law at Mt. Sinai, after he had delivered his people from slavery, to prepare them to live as heirs of the Promised Land. It was God's plan not only to divide the land into territories for each tribe, but also to subdivide each territory into smaller portions for the clans within each tribe. God bestowed his covenant blessing within the context of family, so that each household would directly and tangibly experience their identity as children of God, heirs of the promise, each enjoying the Lord's provision under their own vine and fig tree for the generations to come.
Now in Leviticus 25 the Lord foresaw situations that might separate a man from his God-given property. A man might become poor and be forced to sell a field to a fellow Israelite or perhaps even to a foreigner. Worse yet, the man might become so desperate that he would sell himself to his creditor to pay off his debts. In response, God laid down a number of principles. The first is found in verse 23, that the land belonged to the Lord, and therefore he retained the right to restore it to its original owner. Secondly, the Israelites were to do whatever they could to prevent debt by showing kindness and love to their neighbour. If a brother Israelite was forced to sell himself into. debt slavery, his creditor was not to treat him as a slave but as a hired worker, and if at anytime a kinsman redeemer would come and pay the debt, the creditor would have to let his worker go. If no redeemer came, then the creditor would still have to release him in the Year of Jubilee. Likewise, if a brother Israelite had to sell a field, at anytime he could get it back through a kinsman redeemer, and if not, he would get it back at the Jubilee. Thirdly, you can imagine that an approaching Jubilee could affect real estate prices and cause conflict: a seller might like to sell high just before the Jubilee, and a buyer might like to buy low just after the Jubilee. Make it profitable! To prevent abuse, the Lord set the Jubilee as a benchmark for regulating real estate prices according to a sliding scale: the price was to be set according to the number of crops that the buyer could expect to grow before he lost the field again in the Jubilee: the more growing seasons, the higher the price, and the fewer growing seasons, the lower the price. In this way, the Lord promoted equity and encouraged love for the neighbour. In short, the Jubilee was a year when debt-slaves could return to their families and families could return to their properties.
I want to clarify two important aspects of the Jubilee. The first is that it was to begin in the seventh month of the seventh Sabbath year. In other words, the fiftieth year began before the forty-ninth year was finished. The first five months of the Jubilee coincided with the last five months of the seventh Sabbath Year, and the last seven months of the Jubilee coincided with the first seven months of the following year. Mathematically, what that means is that the Jubilee cycle was not a fifty-year cycle but a forty-nine-year cycle. So to all those who have just celebrated their golden jubilee, I regret to tell you that you're a year too late. The fixed pattern was the repetitions of seven years. The Jubilee straddled the end of one seven-year cycle and the beginning of the next one. When the Jubilee began, the fields were already fallow from the Sabbath year; the man who had bought the property was not allowed to squeeze one more crop out of it before he lost it again. No, he had to let it rest. And when it reverted to the original owner, that owner could not quickly plant some crops to grow food for himself; he had to wait another growing season. Both the buyer and the original heir had to learn that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. They had to learn what Jesus learned, that it is better to go hungry than to listen to the devil.
That brings me to a second important aspect: the Jubilee began on the Day of Atonement, a rather sober day when all the people, rich and poor alike, gathered together at the tabernacle, they fasted, and they watched as the high priest made atonement for their sins. This feast levelled the playing field: they all, rich and poor alike, were debtors before the Lord, sinners in need of God's grace. Atonement Day was like a spiritual reset button: it symbolized that all the impurities were taken away and that the work of the tabernacle could begin all over again. It reminded the people that they could only return to their rightful inheritance once their sins had been atoned for. I suspect that the word Jubilee makes us think of joy and jubilation, but the Hebrew word actually means ram's horn; it probably refers to the fact that the Jubilee was announced by blowing the trumpet. So it had a more serious message: it's time to let go of debts; it's time to go home and start over.
The Israelite Jubilee was a unique institution in the ancient world. In some cultures, debts were cancelled when a new king came to the throne. In ancient Egypt, a so-called sed-festival was held in the king's thirtieth year. Such customs are sometimes called jubilees, but they were not the same as the Old Testament Jubilee. Now some might say, who cares what other cultures did? Don't we hold to sola Scriptura, the Bible alone? Yes, but here it's important to note what sola Scriptura does not mean. It does not mean that the Bible is the only legitimate source of information. The Jews too had other books besides the Hebrew Bible. One of them was a book called Jubilees, likely written in the second century before Christ. This book retells the history of the Old Testament from creation to Mt Sinai, and it divides this entire history into forty-nine jubilee periods, 49 x 49 years for a total of 2401 years from the creation of the world to the Exodus. That sounds fascinating, doesn't it, that the timing of the Exodus should have marked the beginning of the fiftieth jubilee period of world history. But is it true? It may interest you to know that the book of Jubilees was actually part of the Bible for the Ethiopic church in Africa, although it was never part of the Jewish canon, nor of the Roman Catholic or the Protestant Bible. Many Hebrew fragments of this book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the fact that it was first written in Hebrew does not yet make it holy Scripture. Furthermore, the book of Jubilees is not the only attempt to calculate the age of the world. Many such attempts have been made, but the principle of sola Scriptura does not bind us to any of these. Scripture is authoritative, yes, but our reconstructions of history on the basis of Scripture are not. Nor does the principle of sola Scriptura mean that we still have to observe the Jubilee today. Roman Catholic popes have regularly proclaimed Years of Jubilee ever since the 1300s, together with Jubilee indulgences and ceremonies. (The most recent one was held just last year.) But the Reformed churches confess that "the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ ... so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians." We are not saved by observing the law but by grace alone. That brings us to the second sola, sola gratia, by grace alone.
The law of the Jubilee is infused with the grace of the gospel. Debt slaves had their debts cancelled not because they had worked long enough, but because God said the time had come. The landless had their properties restored not because they'd managed to buy them back but because God declared them heirs. The God who had shown his people grace by delivering them from slavery now expected them to show the same grace to each other. But did it happen? Was there ever a Year of Jubilee in Old Testament history? Some scholars call Leviticus 25 "utopian legislation," laws for an ideal society. There I would disagree. These laws are far too practical for that, prompted by the chronic realities of brokenness and poverty, and inextricably connected to real estate prices and land valuations. They were bona fide laws, designed to be obeyed.
But were they obeyed? I would like to divide the question into two: was the Jubilee kept, and was the Jubilee counted? First, was it kept? We do not read anywhere in the Old Testament that a Year of Jubilee was ever held. In itself, that is of course an argument from silence. The Bible doesn't tell us everything that happened. Yet if, as I suggested earlier, Leviticus 25 should be read in tandem with chapter 26, about the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience, then we can deduce that Israel followed the path of disobedience. The historical books are filled with stories of apostasy, and the prophets are filled with angst over the abuse of the poor at the hands of the rich who "added house to house and field to field" (Isa 5:8). The last king of Judah proclaimed liberty for the Hebrew slaves when Jerusalem was under siege, only to take them back again when the siege lifted. And you should read the scathing judgment of the Lord in Jeremiah 34:
"You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So I now proclaim 'freedom' for you, declares the Lord — 'freedom' to fall by the sword, plague and famine ... I will bring (the Babylonians) back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down." When Jerusalem was destroyed and the people taken into exile, then, says 2 Chronicles 36, "The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed."
Yet that was not the end. In the very next verse, 2 Chronicles 36 tells how the Lord moved the heart of King Cyrus to let the people go back home. Isaiah 61 foretells the return from exile using jubilee language:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (that's the year of Jubilee) ... They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations ... they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs.
Even though the people did not proclaim a Jubilee for each other, the Lord proclaimed a Jubilee for them, and allowed them to return to their ancestral properties. The Lord kept the law in their place. That's grace! Did God do this because the people had paid enough for their sins and earned their release? Daniel 9 makes very clear that that was not the case. There Daniel, realizing that the seventy years were over, prayed a long prayer of confession. He begged the Lord to set his people free, but not because they had earned it. Daniel said, "We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive!" The Lord then sent his angel Gabriel who told Daniel that the returning exiles should not expect years of blessing but years of trouble. Gabriel explained that seventy sevens would still have to pass before sin would be atoned for. It's a difficult passage, but it likely means that sin would not be forgiven until the Messiah would finally come and put an end to sacrifice through his death. The people could only be saved through a Messiah who would be cut off and left with nothing. Only by grace!
In short, the exile proves that the laws of the Jubilee had not been kept. Was it counted? That's a different question. In the days before standardized time — when years were marked by the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, when there was no B.C. or A.D., but years were tabulated by the reign of the local ruler, when some people used the lunar calendar and others the solar — in those days, God's people had to count time. Verse 8:
Count off seven Sabbaths of years — seven times seven years — so that the seven Sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.
This responsibility of counting time was given to all the people, but it will especially have been the prerogative of their leaders: the priests, who had to make sure that the feasts were held at the proper times, and the kings who had the authority to call God's people together. There are a number of indications, both in Scripture and in extra-biblical literature, that the priests did indeed keep track of Sabbath years and jubilees. Ancient Jewish writings mention at least two Jubilee years, one in the eighteenth year of Josiah and the other in the twenty-fifth year that Ezekiel was in exile (Ezek 40:1). Now, it is difficult to prove either of these, and I don't have time this evening to go into the arguments, but it does stand to reason that if the priests kept track of feast days, they would also have kept track of festal years, even if they were powerless to enforce them.
What made the priests powerless? Consider two factors. First, the Jubilee laws would only work if the people actually took possession of the entire land that the Lord had promised to them — if all the tribes and their clans actually claimed their places and held onto them. That seldom happened. For much of its history Israel was subject to invasion and occupation by the surrounding nations. They could only hold on to their inheritance by faith in the Lord, sola fide. Secondly, remember that the people asked for a king like that of the surrounding nations, even though Samuel sternly warned them that such a king would act counter to the democratic and decentralizing spirit of the Jubilee. Samuel said,
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots ... He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants ... He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day. 1 Samuel 8:11-18
More positively, Israel's kings were supposed to champion the cause of the poor and give justice to the helpless. But what king would be interested in proclaiming a jubilee? Only a king with a self-sacrificial spirit, a king willing to lose everything, a king willing to share his kingdom with the people. Such a king is Jesus Christ. The best of Israel's kings, Josiah, did proclaim a Passover in the eighteenth year of his reign, but we read nothing of a Jubilee (2 Kgs 23:23). His was a time to circle the wagons, a time to centralize power in Jerusalem against the growing threat of military invasion. And so the disenfranchised and impoverished people who had lost their fields to rich creditors could have no faith in the temple priests: maybe the priests could count the years, but they could not help the people. The faithful would have to wait for a better priest to announce a Jubilee for them.
Does this mean that the law was flawed? Not at all, for the principle of solo fide was built right into the Jubilee legislation. God's people had to trust that he would give them the land. And this was not blind faith: the Lord had already won mighty victories against the Egyptians and the Amalekites, so that the Canaanites were shaking in fear. God's people also had to trust that they could leave the land fallow even for two years in a row and still have enough to feed their families. Nor was this blind faith: the bumper crop in the sixth year should have given them all the reassurance they needed; they would have been able to count the cost. Read the fifty-five verses of Leviticus 25 and you will see how the Lord patiently answered every question that the people might have, every objection they might raise. The problem did not lie with the law but with the people's lack of faith. Therefore they had to look to a faithful priest-king who could fulfill this law for them, and with that we come to solo Christo, in Christ alone.
Every new minister of the gospel needs to choose a Bible text for his inaugural sermon, a passage that will set the tone for his pastoral ministry. Tonight's graduate will soon face that choice as well, the Lord willing. I find it fascinating that our Saviour chose a prophecy about the Jubilee as his inaugural text. After he had been baptized and tempted by the devil, the Lord Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth; he took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and unrolled it to what we call chapter 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he sat down and began his sermon with these words, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." In other words, Jesus characterized his ministry as the inauguration of a Jubilee. It's fascinating, first, that Jesus, who to all appearances was neither a king nor a priest nor a teacher of the law assumed the authority to proclaim a Jubilee in his time; and second, that the reaction of the audience was not joy but skepticism and hardness of heart. They even interrupted his sermon and tried to kill him: the offence of the gospel pushed Jesus toward the cross, precisely where he needed to go. But not before he had ample opportunity to lift up the downtrodden, to heal the lame and the blind, to forgive the sins of the oppressed, and to chastise the teachers of the law who thought that salvation was to be found in obedience to the letter of the law, despite the testimony of their own sordid history.
Time fails us to explore the Jubilee character of Jesus' ministry, so let me give just one example. When Peter asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?" then Jesus responded, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven," invoking perhaps the principle of seven from Leviticus 25 and the "seventy sevens" of Daniel 9. And then Jesus continued with a parable about an unusual king, who forgave an enormous debt at tremendous cost to himself, and who expected the forgiven debtor to forgive others. After all, that was the original message of the Jubilee: those set free by the Lord ought to set one another free. So too in the kingdom of Christ: those who pray for forgiveness must also forgive — and not just once every fifty years or so! Forgiving debts is difficult: of ourselves we're not any better at it than the Israelites were. Married couples can attest to that as well: it's hard to forgive each other. But we need to remember who we are: people who have experienced Atonement Day, people who have heard the gospel proclamation of Jubilee and are travelling home to our eternal inheritance. If along the way God permits us to celebrate our golden jubilees, then that's a testimony of his grace in Christ. And if we don't make it to those jubilees, because our marriage is cut short by illness and death or broken apart by sin, we have not thereby lost our only comfort in life and death. To quote a song by Michael Card, "Jesus is our Jubilee!"
Soli Deo Gloria
Let me conclude with soli Deo gloria, "to God alone be the glory." This principle too is built into the Jubilee legislation. It's found in the reason for the law. Why observe the Jubilee? Because I am the Lord your God. That refrain, I am the Lord your God, is found three times in Leviticus 25, five more times in chapter 26, and exactly forty-nine times throughout the book of Leviticus. It almost always accompanies a command: "Do such and such. I am the Lord." It's a refrain that calls for simple obedience and childlike trust. It captures the very purpose of our existence: to live our lives for him. It prompts us to respond in worship, "You are the Lord!" It prompts us to say in wonder, "This is our God!" And it invites us to discover in these ancient Scriptures the never-changing character of our God: his holiness, his wisdom, his grace, his glory, and his beautiful vision for our salvation. May the Lord bless us as we study his Word again this year. And may God keep our land glorious and free.