The Law of the Land
Topic: Law Passage: Leviticus 25:1–27:34
“God has spoken that we might believe, and that believing we might see.” So begins Kenneth Mathews in his commentary to the Book of Leviticus. When God decided to reveal Himself to the race of men that He had created, He did not do so through a painted portrait or a sculpted image. He did so by words...words spoken and words written.
What do words have to do with our faith? Everything! At every stage in redemptive history, to quote Francis Schaeffer, “God is there and He is not silent.” As the Bible testifies, it is through words that God creates, confronts, convicts, corrects, and comforts. It is through His written words that He both interprets Himself to us and instructs us how to live.
Even the most complete revelation of Himself—His incarnate Son—is called “the Word” (John 1:1-3 and 14). Whether by means of the spoken Word, the written Word, or the living Word, God wants us to know Him.
But sometimes we wonder about that don’t we? Is every part of the Scriptures, for example, an expression of God through which He makes Himself known? Even Leviticus?
Hopefully, these past eight weeks have begun to affirm for us that even in these dust-covered books of our Bible God is disclosing Himself to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And there are two things, above all else, that He would have for us to know. They are summarized in the key verse of the book, Leviticus 11:45: “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
This morning we arrive at the final chapters of our study in Leviticus. Thus far we have heard the Lord instruct His ancient people, Israel, regarding their approach to Him. It would be through the blood of an innocent animal whose life would be taken in the place of theirs as an atoning sacrifice for their sin. But so great was the separation between a holy God and a sinful people that a mediator was required to offer that sacrifice on their behalf. Furthermore, they were to live lives of purity in clear distinction from those of their heathen neighbors. And in order that they perpetually remember that they were His people, they were to annually observe prescribed feast days which told the story of their history and pointed toward the glorious future that was their prospect.
These Israelites had been delivered from Egyptian enslavement and were on their way toward a land that the Lord promised to give to them. But before they arrived there, a few more things needed to be made clear. To borrow from verse 2 of chapter 25, when they entered land, they must be certain to adhere to three final exhortations. First, they were to observe the years of Sabbath and Jubilee (chapter 25). Second, they were to be aware that obedience brought blessing and disobedience brought the threat of a curse (chapter 26). And third, they were to be careful not to make rash vows or pledges to the Lord (chapter 27).
Let’s consider these individually, beginning in chapter 25 with instruction concerning...
The Sabbath and Jubilee years (25:1-55)
The fourth of the Ten Commandments that the Lord gave to Moses on Mount Sinai reads this way:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep in holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Last Sunday, when we were in Leviticus 23, we saw that command repeated. Now here in chapter 25, we find the “sabbatical principle” being applied to the annual calendar, as well as to ordinary week. When they entered into the land and took up residence, they were to “sow...prune...and gather” for six years, “but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the LORD.” Even if crops were to produce by themselves that seventh year, they were not be reaped. The land was to lie fallow that year, with no work being done in the field.
But how were the people to survive if they were not permitted to work their fields? Verse 6 explains, “The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you.” Down in verses 21 and 22 the Lord further explains, saying, “I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.”
In other words, the Sabbath year was to serve as a reminder that it was the Lord who had given them the land—a statement that is found throughout this section—and just as He had provided the land, so He would provide for them within that land. And He would do so in a supernatural manner. They were to cease from their labor and trust God to supply.
The “principle of the Sabbath” continues as we move into verse 8. Notice there that the text reads,
8 “You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you for you, when each of you shall return to his property, and each of you shall return to his clan. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. 12 For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you.”
“Jubilee” is actually a transliteration of a Hebrew word that refers to “the sounding of the trumpet.” The essential principle underlying the “Year of Jubilee” is spelled out in verse 23, where God says, “the land is mine.” This is a striking statement because the land would be divinely distributed to the twelve tribes upon their entrance into it. According to Joshua 19, lots were cast in order to determine its distribution for each tribe, clan, and family. Although the original allotment of the territory was handed down from generation to generation within the family, the actual ownership of the land was retained by the Lord. The people were only “tenants” on the land, and they enjoyed the benefits of the Divine Owner.
The purpose of the “Jubilee laws” was to prevent the utter ruin of those who had fallen into debt. In biblical times a man who incurred a debt that he could not repay could be forced to sell off his land or even his personal freedom by becoming an indentured slave. If left unchecked this process would lead to great social division with a class of rich landowners exploiting a class of landless serfs. The Lord provided the “Year of Jubilee” as a “stop-gap” measure to prevent that from happening.
In effect a man was able to rent out his land or his labor for a maximum of forty-nine years. The rent would have been paid in one lump sum when the transaction was made, so that in the “Jubilee” year, the land would revert back to its original owner and the slave would be given his freedom. Therefore, in every man’s lifetime the slate could be “wiped clean.” Everyone would be given opportunity to make a fresh start.
But the Lord further decreed in verse 23, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity,” adding in verse 24: “And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.” “Redemption”! Don’t miss that, because it is the very principle that the “Year of Jubilee” intends to illustrate. Its commemoration was about “purchasing back” or “reacquiring” that which has been lost. According to verse 10, it was a year to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”
Every fifty years the Israelites would be reminded that they had once been bound in Egypt under an oppressive regime, but that they had been liberated at the exodus by a miraculous display of divine power. They were now free, soon to inherit a land that the Lord was preparing for them. They belonged to Him by the covenant He had entered into with them. As a further reminder of God’s goodness, on their part they were to make provision for the poor and not take unfair advantage of those who were destitute and deprived.
What a creative and prophetic picture of the salvation that the Lord has provided for you and me. As you read verses 25 through 34, don’t miss the family of words that appear there. Words like “redeem,” “return,” “recover,” and “release.” How “New Testamental” it all sounds. The “Year of Jubilee” demonstrates for us that only God can provide for our freedom from slavery, debt, and the burdens of this life. The ultimate expression of this is our release from the bondage of sin and our claim on the eternal inheritance promised by God and provided for us by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, as we read these paragraphs, may we be mindful of our redemption secured by the ransom of His sinless blood.
There is not a great deal historically to suppose that Israel ever consistently and faithfully observed either the Sabbath or the Jubilee years. I’ll come back to that thought shortly. In researching this, I learned that our Jewish friends refer to the “Sabbath year” as “Hakhel,” which means “assembly.” But like most of their ancient feasts, it is a “watered down” version of the original. According to one Hebrew source, although the date of the “Sabbath year” is still noted, the biblical observance of “Hakhel” will only apply to that time when all the Jewish people reside in the Holy Land. Thus they await its fulfillment.
As followers of Christ, we know that “the Sabbath” is a picture of the eternal rest assured to those who trust Him as the Messiah. The author of Hebrews has left for us this reminder:
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:9-11).
It is that last phrase that serves to transition us into chapter 26, for it is here that we learn of...
The blessings and the curses (26:1-46)
...that are promised for obedience and disobedience, respectively.
The chapter begins with a restatement of what might be called “the fundamentals of the Law.” In verses 1 and 2 we read, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.” Regarding this pronouncement, one commentator has written, “In a word the gold standard for measuring the loyalty of the people to the Lord is their sole worship and obedience to him.” Humble submission to Him is the highest expression of their faithfulness.
The entirety of this chapter is written in the form of a contractual agreement between two parties. It is characterized by a series of “if...then” clauses which are presented by a sovereign to his subjects. We have seen this before and likened it to the “suzerainty treaties” which were well-known in biblical times. Basically, they spelled out stipulations and ramifications if certain conditions were met or not met. In verses 3 through 13 we find the Lord promising blessings to His people if they lived in obedience to Him. That is followed in verses 14 through 39 with threats or curses if they instead chose to live in disobedience to His commands.
There are three blessings listed. First, in verses 4 and 5, the Lord promised seasonal rains that would produce dependable harvests. Next, in verses 6 through 10, He said that He would grant them peace in the land. The people would be protected from “harmful beasts” and enemy attacks. Then, in verses 11 through 13, the Lord promised His enduring presence among His people. Verse 12 reads, “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” All of these benefits, remember, were contingent upon their obedience to His commandments. As they lived faithfully, the blessings of the covenant regarding their security and prosperity would follow.
Verse 14 begins with the word, “But,” indicating the outcomes if the conditions of the covenant were not met. Just as blessings follow obedience, curses inevitably would follow disobedience. Before we look at these curses, let me make three preliminary observations:
First, there is much more said about the penalties than the blessings. This should not be thought strange, given the predisposition toward disobedience that is common to us all. Second, the repeated conditional statements introduced by “if” remind us that the people bear the responsibility of right behavior. If the penalties rained upon Israel, it would be their own fault, not because of any fickleness on God’s part. And then third, an indication of God’s attitude toward the unfaithfulness of His people is seen in the rising intensity of the curses as they are listed. Repeatedly the Lord warned that failure to respond to each judgment would bring a more severe judgment. Four times in this section, He told them that He would “discipline” them (or “strike” them) “sevenfold for (their) sins” (verses 18, 21, 24, and 28).
Blessings and curses are the result of God’s moral order of the universe. By His autonomous will, He governs by His sovereign power. His judgments are rooted in His moral character. He is the Supreme Ruler over creation and history. Therefore, whether we choose to acknowledge Him as such, He is the Lord over our everyday. What’s more, He does not hesitate to take responsibility for the judgments that occur. He leaves no room for any rival power or authority or some other principle of justice that He cannot bend for His purpose. He determines the outcome of all things according to His providential control.
If you look for it, you will observe a parallel between the blessings and the curses. Just as He promised abundant rain and fruitful harvests, peace and tranquil times, and His abiding presence as a result of faithful obedience, so now a tragic reversal of all those things would be the outcome of living lives that disregarded and disobeyed His commands.
And if their rebellion toward Him and rejection of Him persisted, He would cast them out of the land. He says in verses 31 and following, “And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.”
In time that would happen. God’s people would be removed from the land, taken captive by their enemies, never fully to return. Before ever entering the land, they were warned that would happen if they should persist in their disobedience.
Earlier I mentioned that history does not confirm that Israel ever observed with any consistency the “Sabbath year.” Interestingly, that failure is cited in verses 34 through 39 as a major reason for the Lord allowing them to be deported. Years later, Jeremiah would prophesy that the nation would be taken into captivity for a period of seventy years (cf. Jeremiah 25:11), during which time the land would lie barren.
It is generally believed that those “seventy years” represented the seventy “Sabbath years” that had gone unobserved. In other words, four hundred and ninety years would pass without any “Sabbath year” observance. This certainly seems to be supported by Leviticus 26:34 and 35, which reads, “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.”
Even in the midst of these threats of judgment, the Lord continues to extend mercy and hope to His people. Notice the offer He makes in verses 40 and following:
40 “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 But the land shall be abandoned by them and enjoy its Sabbaths while it lies desolate without them, and they shall make amends for their iniquity, because they spurned my rules and their soul abhorred my statutes. 44 Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God. 45 But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.”
Before we leave this section, we should ask whether the Christian lives under the threat of judgment and curses on the order of those given to Israel here. The answer is no! The Apostle Paul made that very clear when he wrote in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Consider that, if you will. The crescendoing list of curses that we find in this chapter—and so much more—was placed on the innocent Son of God in order that those who look to Him in faith would not have to bear them.
So, let’s be clear about this. Christians are not exempted from the wrath of God because of our sorrow over our sins, and not because God sympathetically understood our shortcomings, choosing to let us “off the hook.” Rather, the Lord showed His mercy toward us as sinners because Jesus on the cross bore the full wrath of God against human sin (cf. Romans 5:10).
As we enter into the final chapter of this book, we are cautioned in the matter of making vows unto the Lord. As someone has quipped, “There is only one problem with making a promise...keeping it!” In one sense, this may seem a strange way to conclude a volume dealing with rules and regulations, but in another it serves to remind us to not be hasty in...
The vows and the offerings (27:1-34)
...we make to the Lord. Vows are often made in the heat of the moment, and then in retrospect when the crisis is over, the person may regret that they were made. What’s more, even with the best of intentions, vows are often forgotten or left only partially fulfilled. Scripture includes a number of warnings about such an attitude. I’ll cite just one from Deuteronomy 23, verses 21 through 23: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.”
In other words, there was no compulsion about taking a vow, but if one was taken then there was a strict obligation to keeping it.
Chapter 27 deals specifically with vows made to the service of the Lord. The “valuations” that were placed upon individuals here relate not to their worth as persons, but to the degree of service—primarily in the form of “manual labor”—each was able to contribute. The most important commitment that a person could make was the dedication of a human life to serving God. The values mentioned here are quite large, given the fact that the average wage of a worker in biblical times was thought to be one shekel per month.
Vows were made of persons and animals, but also houses and lands could be made as “a holy gift to the LORD.” As noted, no vow or offering was to be given trivially. Going through the motions of giving apart from careful consideration was meaningless. After all, God needs nothing and is certainly not dependent on anyone giving to Him. Promises to God are indicators of our devotion to Him.
To this day, the Bible encourages and expects Christians to give of their resources. But the Lord expects us to be thoughtful in our giving and thoughtful in the commitments we make. We only mock God when we make empty promises that we have no intention of keeping. The importance of integrity in our giving is strikingly illustrated in the story of Ananias and Sapphira found in Acts 5:1-11. You recall that they sold a parcel of land and then gave to the church a portion of the proceeds, claiming that they had given all. Their crime was not in keeping some of the money for themselves, but in lying to the Holy Spirit and making false pretenses about their giving. The Lord’s judgment fell swiftly on them and exposed their hypocrisy.
Underlying these Levitical laws is that a person should keep his vows. He should not rashly promise to give something to God in the heat or emotion of the moment and then later retract his promise. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). This chapter reminds us that holiness is much more than a matter of correct ritual. Its attainment requires the total consecration of a person’s life to God’s service. It involves the commitment to giving one’s all, and then following through with that commitment. That is the very essence of God’s directive to His people to “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
In terms of our giving to the Lord today, there are several thoughts that I believe Scripture would have us to consider that flow out of this final chapter. Let me share those with you as we draw this message and the series on living lives of holiness as His redeemed people to a close.
First, the giving practices of the early church and mentioned in several passages throughout the New Testament included giving liberally, faithfully, and proportionately. The faithfulness with which one gave was, in fact, a “yardstick” measuring the spiritual condition of a Christian and of a church. Giving to the service of the Lord reflects the sacrifice of Jesus, who laid aside His personal prerogatives in order to provide the riches of His glory for those who were impoverished by their sin. All that we have been given has been granted to us by God to serve spiritual goals. As followers of Christ, we have no choice but to give back to Him. In short, regardless of our resources, we are all called to give.
Second, there is confusion on the part of some Christians regarding to where their giving should go. Is it to the church or some other Christian ministry or organization? I believe the New Testament is very clear in teaching that our primary giving should be to the local church to which we belong. If we are willing to subject our souls to the preaching and example of a local body, yet we cannot support it financially, perhaps we need to ask ourselves how committed and invested I actually am in the work of that ministry. Conversely—and I hope that I do not need to tell you this—not a single cent of your giving should go to anyone who fails to preach the Gospel of repentance and faith toward Jesus Christ.
Third, although I realize that some churches require their members to make “pledges” with regard to their giving each year, we do not do that here at Temple Hills. At the same time, we do want to encourage you to make careful planning a part of your giving. That is a characteristic of good stewardship and in no way opposes the work of the Holy Spirit. I am not suggesting that we be presumptuous in our planning, but neither should we give on impulse. At times we may be moved to give spontaneously, but generally speaking it is the thoughtful and planned giving that best serves God’s church.
If you have been with us at Temple Hills for very long, then you know that I do very little preaching on stewardship. I am at times criticized for that, and perhaps justifiably so. Some preachers manage to work it into their sermons every week. I am not one of those. At the same time, when I come to the end of this book and read the words found in Leviticus 27:30, I am compelled to say something on the subject...for there we read, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.”
In his Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17:25, Paul said that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Greater still, He gives eternal life to those who call on His name. When the hymnwriter Isaac Watts “surveyed the wondrous cross,” he concluded...
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Our Marker and Redeemer has said, “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
Living as the “holy people” of a “holy God” requires that we surrender all to Him to be used in His service. Have you counted the cost (cf. Luke 14:28)? Is He worth everything to you?