All too often people associate the Sabbaths of God with burdens and harsh restrictions. In reality, though, the Sabbath has always been deeply connected with freedom. The commanded weekly Sabbath, for example, places limits on the exploitation of the poor by employers, who are commanded to provide a Sabbath rest for their children, their servants and employees, and even their animals. The Sabbath year provided forgiveness of debts and protection against exploitation of the land. The Day of Atonement was the one day during the year on which the high priest of ancient Israel was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle or temple and communicate face-to-face with God. One of the most obscure and neglected aspects of the Sabbath commandment is the Jubilee year. Let us examine the relationship between the Day of Atonement and the Jubilee year.
Two provisions of the Jubilee year are stated in Leviticus 25. First, Leviticus 25:8-10 gives one of the purposes of this year: “And you shall count seven Sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven Sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.” We see here that on the Day of Atonement the Jubilee year was proclaimed, allowing all people to return to their hometowns and to their families and find their ancestral lands restored to them. Every forty-nine years there was a second chance for people to recover from their own mistakes or the sins of their fathers and be restored as landowners in good standing in Israel. Just as the Day of Atonement symbolized the reconciliation of God and man through the symbolism of the sacrifice of the two goats (a custom talked about at length in Leviticus 16), this day also pictured the periodic clean slate that people were given to rise above past failures and be restored to their ancestral place and honor.
Another provision of the Jubilee year is found in Leviticus 25:39-43. “And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.” Here we see that the children of Israel, as the servants of God who had been freed from slavery in Egypt by His mighty hand, were forbidden from being sold and treated as mere property. They were to be treated with respect and honor as hired servants who served for a time before being restored at the Jubilee year to their family and to their hometown as free people once again. As the biggest reason for slavery in the ancient world was debt, this law ensured that indebtedness would not lead to permanent alienation from land ownership or respect. There was a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again—with some hard lessons learned.
We might look at these often-forgotten laws in Leviticus and brush them aside as being relics of an Old Covenant that no longer has any relevance for Christians, but to do so would be very wrong. For one, we all need to see the freedom that we have been given by God. Jesus Christ Himself connected our fate as sinners to the debtors of Leviticus 25. In Matthew 18:23-27, He gives us a picture of where we all stand as sinners in the eyes of our Lord and God. Later on we read that this servant, who had owed his master a hopeless debt equivalent to several billion dollars in purchasing power, was unwilling to forgive a fellow servant of a much smaller debt of a few thousand dollars. For his unwillingness, he was sent to the torturers.
Debt is still a problem for Christians today, and is not merely a relic of a bygone age of the supposedly primitive culture of ancient Israel. Every sin and offense we commit puts us in debt to God. Many sins also indebt us to people. We all owe many such debts. Additionally, many of us owe many monetary debts over such matters as credit cards or student loans. Our societies are burdened with hopeless obligations that governments have promised and cannot keep. As a world of many nations we are personally and collectively bankrupt morally and economically; precisely the situation discussed in Leviticus 25 and Matthew 18. We all need to be forgiven of our moral debts because we have no way to repay them, or even our obligations as a nation, short of a divine miracle. Therefore the provisions of the Jubilee year (freedom from permanent indebtedness and a restoration to a clean slate) is very relevant both spiritually and economically.
One of the deepest problems in society is the imbalance in wealth between the very wealthy and everyone else. Many people of this world’s nations leverage their wealth into corruption of governments, passage of laws favorable to their economic interests, and preservation of their wealth and power over society at large. Imagine how different our world would look if every forty-nine years the land was restored to the general people at large, and the slate was cleaned so that no one could amass wealth and power generation after generation. Everyone would periodically be given access to the resources to succeed but none would be able to profit from the continual labor of those who are poor and do not have access to the means of rising from poverty generation after generation. God never intended society to function in this manner.
The harsh inequalities that threaten the legitimacy of governments and limit opportunity for the great mass of the world’s population would be greatly improved if nations obeyed the simple laws of periodic debt forgiveness, freedom, and restoration of ancestral properties to their people. Given the threat of default and bankruptcy that hang over our many nations and many of their citizens in our present world, we ought to consider the importance of the Day of Atonement and the Jubilee year as particularly relevant to our situation today. We all desire freedom from the burdens of sin and debt that we face in this present evil world, and that freedom is provided through the totality of the Sabbath commandment and the Jubilee Year that God gave mankind. That command still remains today for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9). May we all get the chance to enjoy that freedom. One day the Day of Atonement and Jubilee year will be observed around the world. Freedom will be available to everyone.
To learn more about the meaning of God’s Holy Days, please read the Bible study aid, God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for Mankind.