God says, "When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD" (Leviticus 25:2; see Exodus 23:10-11). Following verses explain that each seventh year was to be a land Sabbath, during which no crops were to be sown or harvested. If any produce grew by itself, it could be used for daily food by the farmer and the poor of the land (verse 6). Debts incurred by the poor during the previous six years that had come due were to be canceled at the end of the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
After seven cycles of sabbatical years, a total of 49 years, the fiftieth year was proclaimed a jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-12). Again, the land was to rest from cultivation (verse 11), and all families that had become poor and had mortgaged their land could return to their possession (verse 13).
These were major economic laws given by God, designed to prevent undue wealth acquired through acquisition of farm land from accumulating in the hands of the rich while the poor become further impoverished. God repeatedly emphasizes that people are not to oppress one another (Leviticus 25:14, 17). Deuteronomy 15 says that following these economic laws would bring God's blessing (verses 4, 6, 10). God wants people to learn to be generous and compassionate—to have a "give" attitude rather than one of "get."
Today's world, however, is characterized by materialism and greed. Farmers driven by economics try to milk the last bit of production from their tired soil and livestock. Economies collapse in wrenching depressions—or major recessions—and great hardship affects the world's economy approximately every fifty years. People practice selfishness and oppression of others.
God's land Sabbath and jubilee are intended to prevent this hardhearted attitude and the economic curses that naturally result. Man is to forego his crop willingly in the sabbatical year and the jubilee by letting the land rest. He is to acknowledge God as the true Owner of the land and be thankful for His generosity. In addition, he is to share the good things of the earth with others who are less fortunate. The rest from tilling the land provides opportunities for education, travel, community service, and spiritual reflection.
God promises to perform a miracle by granting abundant crops in the sixth year of the cycle so that the bounty would suffice until a new crop could be harvested two or three years later (Leviticus 25:20-22). This would be a continuing witness of God's power as Provider, just as the manna in the wilderness had been.
The question naturally arises, then, how can a Christian apply these laws of God now? Obviously, an individual cannot observe all the details of these laws, since that would require national legislation. An individual cannot have his own debts released, and there is no divinely appointed inheritance for each family today. But these laws are all for man's good, so we ought to observe them to the extent that this can be done in the present system. Even where a law cannot be practiced in the letter, it should be kept in the spirit.
We must not oppress anyone in our dealings, and we must strive to be generous, kindhearted, patient, and forgiving. A farmer who owes money to banks probably cannot let all his land rest every seven years, since he owes mortgage and other loan payments that must be made each year. In such a case, it is suggested that the land be rested in rotation so that each field receives its rest sometime during a seven-year period. If one is able to rest the whole farm at once, so much the better. He can reckon his seventh year from the time of his baptism or from the time that the knowledge comes to him regarding the land rest. (Observant Jews in the state of Israel count their sabbatical years in the sequence 1993-1994, 2000-2001, 2007-2008, and so on.)
God wants us to take care of the soil and to recognize that we are merely tenants on His land, responsible for maintaining its fertility. Virtually all agricultural colleges know the benefits of crop rotations and of "resting" land by putting it in pasture or cover crops periodically. Good soil conservation measures should also be practiced.
God is concerned with how we use the resources He allows us to manage. He is judging each of us by how we deal with and treat our fellowman (I Peter 4). Thus, His laws and instructions are not archaic or quaint customs but living laws to be observed by God's people.