Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you…
1. Palestine was designed and arranged by God, when He laid the foundations of the earth and divided to the nations their inheritance, to be a natural fortress for the preservation of religious truth and purity; a home in which a covenant people might be trained and educated, in the household of God and directly under His eye, to be zealous of good works themselves, and to be a royal priesthood to mankind — to carry out in their history God's promise to the founder of their race, that in him should all the families of the earth be blessed. And therefore God surrounded it with natural fortifications which kept it separate and secluded — even although placed in the very midst of the most concentrated populations of the world, in the very focus towards which their intercourse with one another radiated — until the objects of the hermit training and discipline of its inhabitants were accomplished.
2. The Jews could not help being a nation of farmers. As a new seed of Adam, subjected to a new trial of obedience, they were placed in this new garden of Eden, to dress and keep it, in order that through their tilling of the ground the wilderness and the solitary place might be made glad, and the desert to rejoice and blossom as the rose. Their thoughts, bounded on every side by impassable walls, were turned inward upon their own country for the development of patriotism and the formation of a more compact and concentrated national life. Their energies were employed exclusively in the cultivation of the soil, and in developing to the utmost the resources of the land. And very rich and varied were these resources. No other country in the world presented, within a similar limited area, such diversities of soil and climate.
3. It was in beautiful accordance with all these natural provisions of the country for the isolation of the people during the ages of their discipline under God's special care to be the benefactors of mankind, that the remarkable arrangements of the seventh or sabbatical year were Divinely instituted. Every seventh year was holy unto the Lord, as well as every seventh day. During that whole year the entire nation kept holiday. The people were not, indeed, absolutely idle; for that would have proved demoralising, and neutralised the beneficent nature of the whole arrangement. Much of their time was spent in religious observances, and in hearing and studying the law of God. Their attention was directed from their ordinary material affairs to their spiritual concerns. And although all cultivation of arable land was strictly forbidden, they had still to look after their sheep and cattle, and to tend with more or less care their gardens anti orchards
; while, doubtless, a good portion of their leisure would be occupied with the repair of their houses, implements of husbandry and domestic furniture, and in weaving and the various other economical arts. At the end of a week, or seven of these sabbaths of the years — or after the lapse of forty-nine years — the sabbatical scale, beginning with the seventh day and going on to the seventh month and the seventh year, received its completion in the year of jubilee. This was the great political sabbath of the people and of the land. The sabbath day was the rest of the individual; the sabbath year was the rest of each farm and household; while the jubilee was the rest of the whole commonwealth, for it was only as a member of the state that each Israelite could participate in its provisions.
4. What was the design of these remarkable sabbatical years, confining our attention solely to their agricultural relations, and leaving out of sight their other provisions? Why were these sabbaths of the fields instituted? The first reason must obviously have reference to the soil itself; for the ladder of all the human relations, social, political, and religious, necessarily rests upon the tilling of the ground. It was to benefit the land itself in the first instance, that the sabbaths of the fields were ordained. The whole arable land of the country was to lie fallow a whole year at fixed recurring intervals, so that during these long periods of rest it might acquire, from the atmosphere, from the operations of the elements and of animal life, and from the decay of the plants which it spontaneously produced, the fertile substances which it had lost. More than most soils, that of Palestine needed this complete periodical rest. Being principally composed of disintegrated limestone, and very loose, light, and dry in its texture, it parted, under the influence of an arid climate, very easily with its phosphates and other fertilising materials. But upon this physical reason there were based very important moral reasons for the sabbaths of the fields. It was required that the whole land should rest periodically, not only that its fertility might be preserved, but also in order to limit the rights and check the sense of property in it. The earth and all the fulness thereof are indeed the Lord's, as the Creator and Preserver of all things; but, in a very special sense, the Land of Promise was His property. He let out His vineyard to husbandmen who should render unto Him the spiritual fruits thereof; and the rent which He required as Superior was. that one year in seven, and one year in forty-nine years, the land should lie fallow — should pass from the yoke of man to the liberty of God — should be offered up a sacrifice, as it were, unto Him upon the great mountain-altar of Palestine. The very abstinence from agricultural work during the sabbaths of the fields — the self-denial in refraining periodically for a whole year to till the ground — the trustfulness needed in looking to God for bread during so long a period of enforced rest — the confidence that He would in previous years secure from the land an increase adequate to meet the strain which the law of the sabbatical year laid upon its productive energies — all this was but a repetition of the conditions annexed to the possession of Eden, namely, that Adam should abstain from eating the forbidden fruit. The sabbaths of the fields were a trial of the faith of the Israelites, a test of their obedience. Only so long as they kept these sabbaths, abstained from eating the forbidden fruit of their fields, did the land yield to them its abundance, and nourish them with its fruits of life. "The land is Mine," said God, when enacting this sabbatical law; "for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me." The Israelites were living as truly a tent life — a life of pilgrims and strangers on earth amid their settled possessions in Canaan — as they had been in their wanderings in the wilderness. But, further still, the sabbaths of the fields connected, in a most beautiful and interesting manner, the agriculture of the Israelites with the institutions of their religion. The law enacting them was given in words corresponding to those of the fourth commandment: the one was only an extension of the other. The natural, social, and spiritual uses of the sabbath day suggested those of the sabbath year. The same sacredness and Divine obligation attached to the one as to the other. Under the theocratic government of Israel, the sanctuary and the farm lay within the same circle of holy influences. But perhaps the most interesting of all the aspects of the sabbaths of the fields was their relation to the future — their prophetic character. As the sabbath day pointed forward to the true and final rest that remaineth to the people of God, so the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee pointed forward to the jubilee of the world — the times of refreshing and the restitution of all things spoken of by all the prophets — the regeneration and the glorious kingdom to be inherited by the true Israel of God when they shall receive back an hundredfold all that they have lost. The sabbath day commemorated the relief of man from the burden of toil imposed upon him because of his sin; the sabbaths of the fields the relief of nature from the curse on the ground for man's sake. The year of rest for worn-out nature was a prefiguration of the change which is in store for the outward world, when every wilderness shall become a fruitful field, and instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and out of which it shall issue as a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
5. But, alas! beneficient as it was, a law so peculiar, and requiring so much faith and self-denial, was not thoroughly and uninterruptedly observed. After four centuries of obedience, during which the land preserved its primitive fertility, and there were no famines arising from impoverishment of the soil, but only from unusual droughts and other atmospheric causes, the people ceased to keep the fallow year, not only through want of trust in God's providence amid so peculiar a mode of living, but also through the moral corruption of the times. Then the land, originally the most fertile in the world, became one of the most capricious and uncertain; the store of fertilising materials was rapidly used up by incessant cultivation; and that state of things which Moses foretold took place — "And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase." Famine after famine, some of them of excessive severity and long continuance, arising from the overdriving and exhaustion of the soil, swept over the land and decimated the people. Henceforth the disregard of the sabbatical year became the burden of every prophetical denunciation, and "the voice of historian and prophet was one continual wail of famine." In this painful extremity of the country's fortunes, the judgment threatened by Moses against the violation of the fallow year was inflicted — "And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you, and your land shall be desolate and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths as long as it lieth desolate, and ye be in your enemies' land; even then shall the land rest and enjoy her sabbaths. As long as it lieth desolate it shall rest, because it did not rest in your sabbaths when ye dwelt upon it." Throughout the Babylonish captivity there was a continuous fallow of seventy years. During all that long period the fields of Palestine lay desolate, were neither sown nor reaped; and by this timely and much-needed rest the land recovered a large portion of its old fertility. And thus God graciously mingled mercy and judgment; combined the punishment of His people with the renovation of their inheritance. Weary, footsore, in tears, the saddened exiles returned to their native land, taught by their own experience that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against God.
(H. Macmillan, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.