What Does The Bible Say? The Sabbath Year (Shemitah)
By Jack Kelley
The weekly Sabbath is one of the foundations of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, often called the five books of Moses). The Israelites were commanded to rest from their labors on the seventh day of the week, because in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy (Exodus 20:11).
The Torah also calls for the land of Israel to rest one year in every seven in a Sabbath for the land (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7). In a Sabbath year (known in Jewish tradition as a “shemitah”) farmers were not to plant seed, prune their vines or trees, or harvest their crops. For that year the land became public property, and anyone could take whatever grew by itself according to their needs.
In order to prevent the people who worked the land from suffering undue hardship during the shemitah year the Lord made the following provision:
“I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year, that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop, and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in” (Leviticus 25:21–22).
The shemitah was also a time for cancellation of debts;
“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan he has made to a fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed” (Deut. 15:1-2).
As you can see this only applied to and between Israelites, and only at the personal level. Money they lent to Gentiles was not forgiven (Deut. 15:3), neither were debts they had incurred from Gentiles. Tithes and other mandatory offerings were not forgiven.
In addition, the shemitah brought the release of indentured servants (Deut. 15:12-15). There were no provisions for bankruptcy in those days. A person who could not repay a debt became an indentured servant to his creditor in order to repay him, but only for a maximum of 6 years. In the seventh year the man had to be set free and given a liberal stake with which to make a fresh start. Again, this applied only to and between Israelites. During their time of servitude, Israelites were to be treated as if they were hired workers, and not as slaves.
According to Jewish historians, the first shemitah cycle started in the fifteenth year after they crossed the Jordan River (1258 BC) when the years of conquering and dividing the land under the command of Joshua were complete. Based on this starting point, the year following the destruction of the second Temple was the first year of a seven-year Sabbatical cycle. On the Jewish calendar, counting from Creation, it was the year 3829. By counting sevens from then, we see that the year 5775 is a shemitah year as well. It began at sunset on Sept. 24, 2014 and will end at sunset on Sept. 12, 2015.
As well as giving the people an opportunity to put their faith in God and see it fulfilled, the year-long break from their work also allowed them to collectively take a breather and focus on higher, more spiritual pursuits without the need to be concerned with providing for themselves and their family. It was truly a blessing from God. (Today, the few people who have this privilege in their professional life call it “taking a sabbatical.”)
Then What Happened?
Initially, Israel kept to the provisions of the shemitah year, but for the 490 years prior to the Babylonian captivity they had neglected to do so, thereby ignoring 70 shemitah years.
During that time they had drifted away from the worship of God altogether, following the religions of their pagan neighbors instead. Finally God said, “Enough is enough!” and after several warnings brought the Babylonians to conquer them and take them captive. He said the reason for this judgment was their descent into idolatry.
In Ezekiel 23 God had the prophet tell the people a parable of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah represented Samaria, the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, and Oholibah represented Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern kingdom. In a chapter so sexually graphic you wouldn’t want your children to read it, He detailed the spiritual adultery of the two kingdoms and said that was the cause of the coming judgment. He had already handed the north over to Assyria, and was about to hand the south over to Babylon. This chapter makes it very clear that the reason for this judgment was their descent into idolatry.
The Northern Kingdom had already ceased to exist altogether, but in a demonstration of His Grace, God fixed the term for the Southern Kingdom’s judgment at 70 years, one for each of the 70 shemitah years they had ignored, in accordance with Leviticus 26:34-35.
God pleaded with them to turn from their evil ways and their evil practices, promising if they did they could stay in the land. Through His prophets He said, “Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and your evil practices, and you can stay in the land the Lord gave to you and your ancestors for ever and ever.Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them; do not arouse my anger with what your hands have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jeremiah 25:5-6). But they refused.
(Let’s make sure you understand that. Had the Israelites ceased their idol worship and turned back to Him, the Lord would not have required them to make up the 70 shemitah years they had ignored and they could have stayed in the land. This makes it clear that the reason for the Babylonian captivity was their refusal to give up their idolatry and turn back to Him. The 70 shemitah years simply gave the Lord a term for the temporary period of captivity.)
After they refused his first offer, He said if they surrendered to the Babylonians instead of trying to defeat them, they could all live (Jeremiah 27:12-13). In other words, none of them had to die in battle. But they refused that, too. Finally they left Him no choice and after a period of 19 years of warnings, He had the Babylonian army break down the walls of Jerusalem, destroy the temple and the city, and carry the people off to Babylon. Thousands of Israelites died as a result.
At the end, He gave them one more assurance that it was only temporary.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:10-11).
So the cause of the Babylonian captivity was their descent into idolatry. The 70 year term was to give the land its missing shemitah years, and God’s promise was to restore and prosper them afterwards, to give them hope and a future.
When the seventy years had been completed, the Lord raised up the Medes and Persians who conquered Babylon without a battle and freed the Jewish people so they could return to their homeland and rebuild their nation as He had promised them.
This is what the Bible says about the shemitah. Neither it nor idolatry were ever an issue again between God and His people, and had they only abandoned their practice of worshiping idols, the Lord would have forgiven their entire 490 year long violation of the shemitah commandment and let them remain in their land (Jeremiah 25:5-6).
What Does That Have To Do With Us?
Most Christians had never heard the term “shemitah” until a few months ago when a very slick promotional campaign was launched for a new book that has since been released. If you buy the book and read it, as I did, you’ll discover that the author gives the shemitah year much greater significance than the Bible does, turning it into the basis for a major, even catastrophic judgment, incorrectly using the Babylonian captivity as his model. And strangely, this increased significance is not meant for Israel but for America. You might wonder how he could make such a leap. But you don’t have to ask, because he already gave us the answer, which I will quote from the book.
“To answer this, we must distinguish between the observance of the shemitah and the shemitah as a prophetic sign. Only Israel was required to keep the shemitah as an observance. As an observance the shemitah applies to one nation. But as a prophetic sign it may apply to any nation. As an observance, the shemitah comes regularly, every seventh year. But as a sign it is not bound to any schedule or regularity. But when it does appear, it will manifest the essence of the shemitah, its effect and mystery, in the form of a sign” (The Mystery Of The Shemitah, page 76, paragraph 2).
What this means is that the author has transformed a regularly scheduled religious observance, meant for one nation only, into a prophetic sign that can manifest itself in judgment at any time upon any nation. In the process, a year of freedom from work, the cancelation of all personal debt, and the release of indentured servants were redefined as economic downturns, recessions, and depressions. From the book, it appears he did this completely on his own authority. No similar conclusions by any other Biblical scholar were cited in support.
Earlier I said that a shemitah year began at sunset on Sept. 24, 2014 and will end at sunset on Sept. 12, 2015. It does not take a prophet to understand that the next 12 months could be one of the most difficult periods of time our nation has ever experienced. Any one who has been paying attention can see that. Nor do we have to invent reasons why this could be the case. Logically, the direction this country has been going during our lifetimes really shouldn’t result in anything else. Even if God just stands by and watches, the consequences of our own actions could easily manifest themselves in some real problems in the year ahead. In fact let me go so far as to say that if the next 12 months don’t result in serious trouble for our country it will only be due to the grace of God.
So in my opinion what lies ahead for us won’t be due to some mystery dredged up from Israel’s past and redefined for America’s future. Neither will it be caused by a handful of eclipses erroneously called “blood moons”.
If America is in for a tough time it will be the predictable result of a generation of shaking our fist in God’s face, deliberately abandoning His principles and attributing His blessings to our own ingenuity.
At the beginning our nation’s forefathers called America the new Israel, but in truth America has never had a covenant with God like Israel does. America has been blessed because in the past we have lived according to His ways. Certainly no where near the degree to which Israel did, but more so than most other nations have. As soon as we stopped doing that, the astute observers among us began to see the blessings being progressively curtailed. And according to the Bible, America’s final destiny is to be completely destroyed, along with all the other countries among which God’s people Israel have been scattered (Jeremiah 30:11).
Is There No Hope For Us?
But even though America does not have a national covenant with God, there are people in America who are in a covenant relationship with Him. It’s not a covenant we made; it was made on our behalf between the Father and the Son. Its provisions called for the Son to die for our sins, so we can be forgiven, made pure and holy, and live in eternity with the Father (1 Peter 3:18). It’s called the Everlasting Covenant because it can never be revoked. It makes those who accept it members of God’s family (John 1:12-13) and citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).
As such, God has promised to deliver us from the time and place of America’s complete destruction, which will come during the time of His Wrath (1 Thes. 1:10). This is a specific seven year period that will begin on Earth shortly after the Lord takes us to His Father’s house in Heaven (John 14:2-3). For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 5:9).
People from all over the world have become beneficiaries of the Everlasting Covenant and will be delivered from the time and place of God’s wrath along with us. Like us, they became so by believing that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and like us they are no longer citizens of the country in which they live but are citizens of Heaven.
If you think of your self only as an American you have a right to be concerned about the direction America has been heading and the consequences of doing so. But if you think of yourself as a citizen of heaven, you have cause for hope, because as citizens of heaven we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so they will be like His glorious body (Phil 3:20-21).
On a day no one could predict in advance, the Lord will come into our atmosphere and call us up to join Him. The dead will be given new immortal bodies and the living will be changed from mortal to immortal (1 Thes. 4:16-17, 1 Cor. 15:51-53). Then we’ll be hurried off to our new home in His Father’s house. It will all happen so quickly that before we realize what’s going on we’ll already be there. For us eternity will have begun and it will be unlike anything we could imagine.
If you haven’t done so already, you can choose to join us by admitting you’re a sinner, believing Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins and rose again, and asking Him to be your Savior. He has already promised that everyone who asks will receive (Matt. 7:7-8). No one will be refused. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that who ever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). You Can Almost Hear the Footsteps Of The Messiah.