August 24, 2005
“Jubilee – Freedom!”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus 25. We are two Wednesday nights away, Lord willing, from finishing our study of the Book of Leviticus. Next Wednesday night, Lord willing, we’ll be looking at chapter 26, that glorious call to obedience. It's one of the best known passages in the Book of Leviticus. And then in chapter 27, again a list of rules, moral commands for the people of God, and we’ll talk about the significance of those great commands together, Lord willing, the first Wednesday night in September. But tonight we're going to finish our study of Leviticus 25.
Last week we looked at the laws pertaining to the sabbatical year and to the year of jubilee, and we saw the principle established there that we belong to God. Everything that we have, everything that we are comes from Him, and even our time we yield back to Him. We learned many lessons from that passage. But tonight we're going to pick up in verse 23 and work our way to the end of Leviticus 25, and as we begin to read God's word together, I want to suggest that you look at this passage in at least three parts.
First of all, if you look at verses 23-28, you will find commands here about land not being permanently sold out of one family to another in Israel. Once Israel is in the land, the ideal is that the land which originated with one family to stay with that family. Now, the passage actually tells us why. This particular law has generated a great speculation. The passage actually tells us why this is, and we’ll look at that in the first part.
Secondly, if you look at verses 29-34, you’ll see a second part of the chapter. In this part of the chapter we are told that these laws of redemption and jubilee about returning the land to those who have fallen on economic hard times and had to sell their land, and eventually have that land redeemed during the jubilee or during the sabbatical year through a kinsman redeemer or through their own ability to buy the land back…we're told that those laws do not apply to houses in walled cities, and those laws do apply to the Levites. And so, some very interesting commands. You may be scratching your heads! Why in the world would these be allowed to apply to houses in walled cities but not apply in the same way to the Levites? Well, we’ll see in just a few moments why that is.
And then finally, the longest section of the chapter runs all the way from verse 35 to verse 55, the third portion of the chapter. And this section of the chapter gives us various instructions about dealing with the poor and those who have had to go into servitude in Israel, and there are at least four parts to this particular section. First of all, verses 35-38 deal with instructions about countrymen who become poor and how Israelites are to treat their fellow Israelites who have fallen into this situation.
Then in verses 39-43, there are specific commands on the right treatment of Israelites who serve as indentured servants.
Then in verses 44-46, there are commands indicating that slaves can be held from the pagan nations around Israel, but not amongst the children of Israel — not from amongst the children of Israel.
And then finally, in verses 47 to the end of the chapter, there again [are] rules given about redeeming a poor man out of his indentured servitude.
So those are the three parts of the chapter: The first pertaining to this law of redemption of the land; the second pertaining to cases where that law doesn't quite apply; and then the third, laws pertaining to the just treatment of the poor.
So, before we hear God's word read, let's look to Him in prayer and ask His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this word, and even though it once again comes from a passage that is more or less obscure, a passage that we perhaps don't read as much as we would read the Book of Romans, or the Gospel of Mark, or the Psalms, or many other parts of the Bible; yet we acknowledge that this is Your word, and that it is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. So surprise us with Your truth, guide us by Your Holy Spirit that we might understand and live in accordance with Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's begin by reading the first section of this passage, and because it's a long passage, let's read each of the three sections discretely, that we can remember better what is being said in each of these sections.
Beginning in verse 23 – this is God's word.
“The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. Thus for every piece of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land. If a fellow-countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold. Or in case a man has no kinsman, but so recovers his means as to find sufficient for its redemption, then he shall calculate the years since its sale and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and so return to this property. But if he has not found sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he has sold shall remain in the hands of its purchaser until the year of jubilee; but at the jubilee it shall revert, that he may return to his property.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
I. All the land is God's land.
Let's look at this section of the chapter together. The law is basically this: in Israel the land could not be permanently alienated from its original owner. If a person fell into poverty and lost his field or his property, there had to be opportunities to return that land to the original owner. It could be bought back by the person simply coming upon better economic fortunes and thus enabled to buy it back at a reasonable price according to these instructions from the person to whom he had sold it. It could be bought by a kinsman redeemer, someone who came and bought the land so that the sale did not have to go through to someone outside the family. Or, at that fifty year jubilee, at the seventh of the seven Sabbath years, the land would automatically revert, according to the law of Moses, to those who had originally owned it.
Now, you may be asking 'Why would this be a law that God would give in Israel?' Some Old Testament scholars have looked at this and seen here the basis of communism. Well, this is basically a plan of income redistribution, or forced economic caps to keep everyone at the same economic level. I'm a bit suspicious of that kind of exegesis of these passages, especially since God tells you in verse 23 why He did it. Listen to it again. “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.” Why is it that God wants the land to stay with the original families that received it? “Because the land is Mine.” He wants to impress upon the children of Israel that everything that they have is simply a grant from Him; that the land belongs to Him, and they are simply sojourners — resident aliens benefiting from His gift to them. And so this law is designed to impress upon them (and we've seen this…we saw it last week, and we've seen it several other times in the Book of Leviticus) that all the land is God's and we are pilgrims and stewards. We’re pilgrims here. This land is ultimately not our final home, and everything that we have from God we have as a stewardship.
It's very interesting that Israel was not the only culture where this was the view: – that the land did not belong to the people. In Medieval feudalism in Europe in the Middle Ages, the idea was that all of the land belonged to the overlord, the king, the sovereign, and that it was the sovereign who dispensed the right of land. You who trace your lineage way back into the early histories of the American Colonies may well have in the possession of your family records a land grant to your family from King George or French or Spanish kings who laid claim to this land and dispersed the land. The idea behind that was that the land ultimately belonged to the king. It was his to disperse.
Interestingly, this was also a practice in Japan during a roughly similar period, where all the land was thought to belong to the Emperor and through him administrated by the Shogun, and all the people who held land simply held it in trust for the Emperor through his administrator, the Shogun.
Well, in Israel here's the idea: all the land belongs to God, and therefore it teaches the children of Israel that they are stewards of what they have from God, and they are pilgrims in this world…aliens and sojourners with them.
But there are also other lessons to be learned from this passage as well. Think of it, for instance…these children of Israel are receiving these laws at Mount Sinai from God through Moses. What had just happened to them? They had been…what?…out of Egypt? They had been saved. In specifics, they had been redeemed out of Egypt. These laws beautifully served to reinforce on a regular basis in the life of Israel living illustrations of what redemption meant.
A man becomes poor; he becomes indebted; he becomes financially unsound or impoverished; he loses the ability to maintain his own property. That property is sold in order to satisfy what he owes. And then, someone else comes along — a kinsman redeemer — and buys back that land for him. Now, the children of Israel (we have been told over and over in Exodus and in Leviticus) had been redeemed by God out of Egypt. They had been bought back out of Egypt. They had been lost in bondage and in slavery. And so even as those who had lost their property through impoverishment had, as it were, entered into a type of bondage and were redeemed out of that bondage either by improved economic fortunes or by a kinsman who would buy the property back, or by God Himself simply providing the jubilee year, saw on a regular basis in Israel's history in its normal economic transactions frequent illustrations of what it meant to be redeemed, to be bought back.
Now, that of course would play a significant role even in the history of Israel; for instance, in the days of Ruth and Boaz, where Boaz would serve as a kinsman redeemer for the family, for the remnant of the family of Naomi. And so we have this beautiful picture of the Lord restoring and buying back. Well, that was a picture that was played out over and over in the normal course of life in Israel. And see how beautifully that prepared them to understand redemption in the New Testament? In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul will tell us — what? — “…the wages of sin is death.” And so our sin brings about an impoverishment. We become enslaved to that sin, and the consequence of that sin is death. But what does God do? Through the free gift of His Son Jesus Christ, He redeems us. He buys us back.
In this case it is not simply financial impoverishment that we face: it is the ultimate spiritual impoverishment of death and condemnation, but we are bought out of that death and condemnation by the work of Jesus Christ, and this particular passage is one of the passages that would have prepared the children of Israel, because of their regular economic experience, to understand the beauties of what God was doing through Jesus Christ when He bought us back from the wages due to us and from the spiritual impoverishment into which we have fallen by our own choice and by our own rebellion.
And so in this passage we are not only reminded that everything — once again, everything that we have — comes from God, and we're pilgrims and stewards just like the children of Israel, but we are given a beautiful picture of redemption in this passage, through this regular process that was to be instituted in the life of Israel.
Now I should probably say something in passing, and that is simply this: as far as we know, these laws were not faithfully followed in Israel outside the time of Moses; and we do know that the prophets themselves brought charges against the children of Israel that they were not faithful to keep them. You remember the prophet saying, “Woe to you who add field to field.” What's the idea behind that? They’re not following the law set up here in Leviticus 25; but, even though these laws were not followed faithfully as they ought, nevertheless there were examples throughout the Old Testament (such as from the Book of Ruth) when this law of kinsman redemption was put into place and was illustrated for the people of God.
So there's the first section: All the land is God's, and we are pilgrims and stewards — and what a glorious picture this is to prepare us to understand what Jesus Christ does on the cross! In His death He pays the price to redeem us out of the spiritual impoverishment and just judgment that we have plunged ourselves into deliberately, not simply by an inadvertent economic disaster, but by our own willful rebellion. What a beautiful picture that is of being saved out of impoverishment without any contribution of our own! Our Kinsman Redeemer redeems us back. God buys back for Himself what is His own.
II. God makes an exception for the Levites.
Secondly, let's look at verses 29-34, and hear God's word.
“Likewise, if a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, then his redemption right remains valid until a full year from its sale; his right of redemption lasts a full year. But if it is not bought back for him within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city passes permanently to its purchaser through his generations. It does not revert in the jubilee. The houses of the villages, however, which have no surrounding wall, shall be considered as open fields; they have redemption rights and revert in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites have a permanent right of redemption for the houses of the cities which are their possession. What, therefore, belongs to the Levites may be redeemed and a house sale in the city of this possession reverts in the jubilee, for the houses of the Levites are their possession among the sons of Israel. But the pasture fields of their cities shall not be sold, for that is their perpetual possession.”
Now again, in this passage the laws of redemption and jubilee are said not to apply to houses in walled cities, except for the Levites’ houses, which are a special case. What is being taught here?
Practically speaking, one thing that may be indicated is that the open field houses indicate a house and field from which the owner drew in crops which contributed to the sustentation of his family, whereas the houses in walled cities were not part of fields that would have been producing things to eat and to feed the family. And so perhaps some distinction was being made between these for economic purposes, but the thing I want to draw your attention to is that even though these houses in walled cities can be sold and not revert to the original owner, the exception in this case is the Levites. God is making a permanent provision for the Levites. Their fields can't be sold at all — God has given those to them — and their houses, if they are sold, unlike the other houses in the walled cities, always revert to the Levites in the year of jubilee. God, in other words, is dealing magnanimously and generously with His servants, and in that same way is teaching us to deal magnanimously and generously with His servants.
III. God's people belong permanently to the Lord.
Then look at the third portion of this chapter. If we look at verse 35, we read:
“Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
“If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner with you, until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but you are to revere your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.
“Now if the means of a stranger or a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger's family, then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or one of his blood relatives from his family may redeem him; or if he prospers, he may redeem himself. He then with his purchaser shall calculate from the year when he sold himself to him up to the year of jubilee; and the price of his sale shall correspond to the number of years. It is like the days of a hired man that he shall be with him. If there are still many years, he shall refund part of his purchase price in proportion to them for his own redemption; and if few years remain until the year of jubilee, he shall so calculate with him. In proportion to his years he is to refund the amount for his redemption. Like a man hired year by year he shall be with him; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight. Even if he is not redeemed by these means, he shall still go out in the year of jubilee, he and his sons with him. For the sons of Israel are My servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Now this is a complex passage and raises many questions, but the basic point is very clear: in Israel even those forced into servitude by extreme poverty were to be treated justly and they were not to be permanent slaves. They were to be released from their obligations in the year of jubilee, and they were always eligible to be bought out of their slavery, either by themselves or by a kinsman redeemer. And the principle is repeated on numerous occasions. Did you notice, for instance, in verse 55 — why is this law to be kept?
“For the sons of Israel are My servants; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
The idea is this: God's servants cannot belong permanently to another master. Jesus, of course, said “No man can serve two masters.” And the Apostle Paul, you remember, speaking to freed slaves, encouraged them not to become slaves again, that they might more freely serve their Master. And so in this passage the principle is this: God's people are His servants, and it is best that they be free to serve Him.
But clearly, throughout this passage one of the things that is being stressed is the privilege of being part of the people of God. Verses 44-46, in which the laws pertaining to permanent slavery of non-Israelites here are primarily there to illustrate to the Israelites the privilege that they have as being part of the people of God. They are always eligible for redemption out of servitude through either the kinsman redeemer or through their own proceeds, if they have indeed come out of their impoverishment through their work.
Furthermore, they are to be treated rightly. They are to be treated, even in indentured servitude, as hired men. They are to be treated with dignity. Over and over in this passage we see first the recognition of God's ownership of everything, and, secondly, His sovereignty and lordship over His people. And this is to lead the children of Israel first of all to be magnanimous and compassionate in the way that they treat the poor and destitute amongst their own people. Over and over in this passage, laws are set in place which are designed to look out for the best interests of those who are poor and destitute. The reminder is that if God cares for the Levites, and if God cares for the poor, and if everything belongs to God, then God's people also should be magnanimous and compassionate in their treatment of the poor and the destitute.
But again, this passage also emphasizes that we are first and foremost to be servants of God, and we're to do nothing in regard to either adding land to land so that we become fixed upon serving ourselves, nor are we to do something in terms of a permanent servitude to another that would keep us from giving our whole service to the living God, because He owns everything and He is the Master who redeemed us out of the land of Egypt.
We ourselves face the same kind of struggles and temptations in this world: the desire to acquire much can occupy the attention of a professing Christian, so that that Christian, rather than serving God, serves things. That's why Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and things.” And so we should not enslave ourselves to things.
On the other hand, our very manifestation of the heart of God is going to show itself in our concern for those who are less fortunate in our midst, especially fellow Christians. And in this passage, these laws are made especially for the children of Israel — although I hasten to say that you’ll remember that Leviticus 17-18 and Exodus 21-24 has even made laws pertaining to non-Israelites and to slaves for their fair treatment, but this passage stresses especially that the people of God should look out for those who are amongst the people of God who are in need, who are destitute, who are in extreme poverty. And so our compassion ought to be a reflection of God's compassion to us. He redeemed us out of slavery, and so we have a heart for caring for those among us who are less fortunate.
Let's look to God in prayer and thank Him for His word.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we recognize that even though these laws may be obscure, and though they are not like anything that has been practiced in our land for many, many years, yet the principles which you set forth here still pertain to us. Everything belongs to You; we are Your servants; and You call upon us to treat our fellow believers with kindness and compassion, and to look out for those who are poor and destitute and in extreme poverty. We ask, O God, that You would give us Your heart in our dealings, that the way that we deal with one another would honor You, would be a witness to Your grace, and would encourage those who are in need. We ask that You would go with us this night to our homes, that You would bless and keep us, that You would forgive us, and that You would grow us in grace, all in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus the Christ. Amen.