According to Deuteronomy 15, the people of Israel were commanded to have a sh’mittah or year of release from debt. This year was the seventh year of a specific seven year cycle throughout Israel. There were normally seven cycles of seven years (49 years) followed by a year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:8-9).
In the seventh (sabbatical) year of a seven year cycle, creditors were required to forgive or release their neighbors from their debts but they could still expect foreigners to pay their debts. Deuteronomy 15:4 indicates an exception could be made if there were no poor among them but that would never happen because verse 11 it says that the poor would never cease from the land.
The Israelites were commanded to lend to their poor brothers and not harden their hearts. This was with the expectation they’d be paid back some time before the end of the seven years. As the 7th year approached, it would be tempting for Israelis not to share their abundance with their brothers for fear the debt would not be paid back. To hold back from those brothers in need in such a case would be sinful. If they were willing to be obedient to the Lord’s command, He would bless their work and everything they attempted to do.
Please do not think the poor were to be given handouts for free. There were no entitlements! Remember, Deuteronomy 15:8 commands us to lend to the poor to help meet their needs. As I said before, this was commanded with the understanding that it should be paid back during the six year period if at all possible. At the same time, the Israelites were not to charge interest to each other; however, they could only charge interest to a foreigner (Deut. 23:19-20).
The poor had to work for things like everyone else did. Leviticus 19:9-10 says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” (NKJV) If the poor wanted to eat, they had to go out and collect the food remaining in the other peoples’ fields after the majority had been harvested. This is how Ruth collected food for Naomi and herself. Fortunately for Ruth, Boaz had compassion on her and gave her more. Even 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 says: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (NKJV)
Another part of the command of release had to do with slaves. When Americans think of slaves, they often think of African slaves that were forced to work under cruel taskmasters. The slaves mentioned in the Bible were not that kind of slave. They were bondservants who were working off a debt. Often if someone could not pay a debt, they sold themselves or a family member into slavery until the debt had been paid. Sometimes a creditor sold debtors into slavery so that their debts could be paid.
Onesimus is an example of a New Testament slave who served Paul in prison. He owed a debt to Philemon but Paul led him to faith in Christ and found him so useful that he was willing to pay Onesimus’ debt so that he did not have to be a slave any longer. In addition, he encouraged Philemon to welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but as he would welcome Paul himself.
Deuteronomy 15 continues by explaining that when a bondservant had served someone for six years, they were to be released in the 7th (sabbatical) year. They were not to go away empty-handed. Instead, the person they worked for was to bless them with animals from the flock, grain, and wine. Since that person had worked six years, they were to be considered worth a double hired servant. This was why they were blessed when they left in the sabbatical year. Sometimes, the male or female bondservant loved the person or family they worked for and/or prospered in that home. If that is the case, one of the servant’s ears could be pierced using an awl while standing against a doorpost to indicate they belonged to that person forever.
How can we look at the sabbatical year (sh’mittah) today? First we need to understand the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. Even though this command applied to the land of Israel, I believe there are some principles for those of us who dwell outside the Land.
First, we should make it our goal to live debt-free. The only exception would be house payments which typically have 15 or 30 year loans. You may have to make some major sacrifices to get your credit cards under control. Don’t ignore your creditors; work with them and ask them to stop charging interest so you can get the bills paid. Try to work out an agreement or payment plan as soon as possible. Others have done it and so can you.
You must understand what the difference is between a need and a want. Beware of the fact that wants are closely linked to pride, greed, and covetousness. Needs are necessary for survival, wants are not. Nothing says a child has to have a ton of toys or more than one gift for the holidays. Wants do not include expensive designer clothing either. Obviously, clothing is a need but you may have to settle for second hand or those that are new but are not a famous brand name. Food is necessary for survival. Grow what you can and buy nutritious food and cut back on the amount of junk food you consume. It is not necessary to have satellite or cable TV. Basic channels meet a basic need for information. Use the internet, Wi-Fi, and other resources at your local library. You can rent or buy movies or do something else for entertainment. Everyone needs a place to live. Is your house more than you can handle? If you can’t refinance your loan, perhaps you need to down-size. In other words, sell it and rent somewhere until you can find something more affordable yet comfortable. Transportation is a need. Take public transportation if it’s available or buy a used car instead of a new one. I have to do almost all of these things. If you think you can’t make such sacrifices to get your debt under control, just remember there are many people throughout the world that don’t live in conditions as good as yours…even if you think you’ve got it bad.
Second, if you are able to lend to others, do it without expecting to be repaid. If you are repaid, rejoice. If your church has a clothing closet or food bank, donate!
Third, if you employ someone and must let them go due to economic hardships, bless them as much as you can when they leave and pray God will provide for them in the future.
In Matthew 18, Jesus told a parable to describe the kingdom of heaven when Peter asked how many times he should forgive someone. I think Jesus’ response to Peter gives us a new perspective on the year of release (sh’mittah). Jesus said there was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Since one was unable to pay him 10,000 talents, his master commanded the man, his wife, his children, and his possessions to be sold in order to pay the debt. The man asked for patience and promised to pay his debt so the man released him and forgave the debt. Unfortunately, that man went on his way and found a fellow servant who owed him a little money compared to the enormous sum he had owed his master. He demanded the money from him but his fellow servant begged for patience and promised to pay him. Instead of showing this man mercy like he’d received from his own master, he threw the man in prison until the debt could be paid. When this man’s master heard about what happened, he was tortured until he could pay the debt that had been previously cancelled. This teaches us the importance of having mercy and showing forgiveness to others. That’s what the year of release (sh’mittah) is all about.
Let’s look at it from a spiritual perspective. We owe a debt of sin to Christ that we’ll never be able to pay no matter how hard we try. When we finally realize this, we must ask the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. Jesus credits our account if we ask Him because He paid that debt for us when He died on the cross. The Lord will also bless us by providing for our needs. The only way we can respond to Him is by becoming His bondservant—by giving Him our ear and our hearts. We do this by listening to His commands and obeying Him with a willing heart for the remainder of our days.
Just think, the last year of the 70th week (shavuah) of Daniel will most likely be the sabbatical year prior to Christ’s return in a year of Jubilee. At that time, His people should be released of their physical and spiritual debts in preparation for Christ’s return.