The Shemitah and The Yovel: Examining The Relevance of God’s Appointed Times, Part II
Consequences of Missed Appointments
Why Do These Things Matter?
As with everything else that comes from the Torah, there is the question of whether this principles of the Shemitah and the Yovel apply to anyone but the Jewish people. The answer is yes, on several counts. First, the people who received the Law included the Jews (mostly the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), but also included the other Ten Tribes of Israel now scattered among the nations, as well as a large collection of foreigners who had attached themselves to Israel at the time of the Exodus. Thus the Torah was and is not exclusively a “Jewish thing”, but something that is instructive to everyone who is part of Israel. And who is Israel? According to the Apostle Paul, Israel includes anyone who has professed faith in Messiah Yeshua and, by virtue of the grace of God, become part of the Commonwealth of Israel and Seed of Abraham (Ephesians 2, Romans 11, Galatians 3:26-29).
Second, when the Lord God gave His final instructions to Moses regarding the Shemitah in Deuteronomy 31, he specified that at the Feast of Tabernacles at the end of each Shemitah every single person in Israel was to assemble at the place He designated (Jerusalem) and hear the entire Law read to them. That included all men, women, and children of both the native-born Israelites and the foreigners. Why? So that, “they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 9:13 NKJV)
And this gets to the third point: Israel was to be the means by which all the nations would learn the ways of God. When He established the world, God established principles and statutes by which it would function. Those principles and statutes continue to govern the course of all creation, including all human beings and nations within that creation. As long as Israel operated within the parameters established by God’s Torah, the nations would see the benefits of God’s blessings poured out on the Hebrews and would draw near to find out why that was so. As Moses explained:
Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6 NKJV)
If Israel failed to obey God’s commandments, then all the nations would see the evil (bad things, curses) that came as the people removed themselves from God’s protection:
And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the Lord will drive you. (Deuteronomy 28:37 NKJV)
But if you turn away and forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods, and worship them, then I will uproot them from My land which I have given them; and this house [the Temple in Jerusalem] which I have sanctified for My name I will cast out of My sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and say, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land and this house?” Then they will answer, “Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this calamity on them.” (II Chronicles 7:19-22 NKJV)
Thus, either way, Israel is a living witness to all the peoples of the earth about the wisdom of drawing near to the Lord and partaking of the life He offers, first through His written Word, and then in the final revelation of His Living Word, Messiah Yeshua. The Commandments of the Lord do indeed apply, if for no other reason than as a signpost and an example for everyone who claims to be a follower of the Lord God. This is what the Apostle Paul meant in this instruction to the mixed Jewish and non-Jewish congregation at Corinth:
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; or let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (I Corinthians 10:1-11 NKJV, emphasis added)
In other words, it is wise for us to pay attention to the Shemitah and Yovel commandments because they will instruct us on how to live in these last days. We must learn from the experiences our ancestors of Israel and Judah who did not pay attention to the commandments, and who suffered the consequences: exile.
Judah: Surviving the Exile
According to Jewish reckoning, the first Shemitah cycle commenced in the Hebrew year 2504 (1258 BC) after the Israelite tribes had conquered the land of Canaan and settled in their inheritance. Every seventh year after that the land of Israel was to enjoy its sabbath. And yet the people did not abide by this requirement, which is why God had to enforce the Shemitah by exiling the people from the land and leaving it desolate, just as He had said:
Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall rest—for the time it did not rest on your sabbaths when you dwelt in it. (Leviticus 26:34-35 NKJV)
This was the Lord’s specific word of judgment given through Jeremiah to Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel. The Babylonian Empire conquered Judah in stages, beginning in 605 BC and concluding in 586 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the deportation of most of the Jews still remaining in the land. The people of Judah were in exile in Babylon for 70 years, a very significant period of time according to the Scriptures:
And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak; He gave them all into his hand. And all the articles from the house of God, great and small, the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his leaders, all these he took to Babylon. Then they burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions. And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. (II Chronicles 36:15-21 NKJV, emphasis added)
Judah heeded this lesson of exile, at least for a while. Upon the return from Babylon, the Jewish people made a point of following God’s commandments with greater zeal than ever before. That zeal often took the form of literal interpretations of God’s Law, and even of adding customs and traditions that would “protect” Torah by ensuring no one came close to breaking a commandment. Centuries later, the customs and traditions had taken precedence over God’s commandments, which is why Yeshua had this to say to the Jewish leaders:
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:6-13 NKJV, emphasis added)
Because Yeshua threatened these traditions and the religious, economic, social, and political order that surrounded them, Jewish leaders conspired to have Him executed unjustly, resulting in another sentence of judgment from God:
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 NKJV; see also Matthew 23:37-39, 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 13:34-35, 21:5-6, 23:27-31)
That sentence was carried out in two phases, both executed by the Roman Empire. The first phase was the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the death, enslavement, or exile of many hundreds of thousands of Jews. The second phase was the Bar Khochba Revolt of 132-136 AD, which brought about the near-annihilation of the Jewish nation. In reaction to the revolt, Caesar Hadrian prohibited the practices of Judaism, including observance of Torah and the Hebrew calendar, and rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman pagan center called Aelia Capitolina, with a Roman temple on the Temple Mount. Hadrian even erased the name of Judea by merging the province with Syria and calling it “Syria Palaestina” (the origin of the modern name “Palestine”). Most of the Jews who survived the war were enslaved or exiled, leaving only a tiny remnant in the land. Jews did not begin to return until the advent of the Zionist Movement at the end of the 19th Century, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet even to this day, most Jews remain outside the land, scattered still throughout the nations.
As harsh as has been the sentence of judgment on the House of Judah, the sentence on Ephraim, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, has been in effect even longer. There is no record that the Northern Kingdom kept the Shemitah after Jeroboam led the revolt of the Ten Tribes against King David’s grandson Rehoboam in 922 BC. More than three centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel presented a living demonstration of God’s anger against the entire nation, Israel and Judah:
You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem. Lay siege against it, build a siege wall against it, and heap up a mound against it; set camps against it also, and place battering rams against it all around. Moreover take for yourself an iron plate, and set it as an iron wall between you and the city. Set your face against it, and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel. Lie also on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it. According to the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their iniquity. For I have laid on you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days; so you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when you have completed them, lie again on your right side; then you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days. I have laid on you a day for each year. (Ezekiel 4:1-6 NKJV, emphasis added)
We know from history that Judah endured a full 70 years of exile, beginning with the first Babylonian conquest in 605 BC and continuing through the decree by King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC allowing the Jews to return. The period of 40 years stated by Ezekiel for the iniquity of the House of Judah could be interpreted as the time of the captivity of King Jehoichin (Jeconiah) (597-560 BC). In fact, Ezekiel dates his prophecies according to the years of Jehoiachin’s exile. The initial exile of Judah, therefore, was complete in the 6th Century BC. But what of the exile of the House of Israel?
 Various scholars have dated the beginning of Jeroboam’s 22 year reign from as early as 937 BC to as late as 922 BC. According to Scripture, he rebelled in the first year of King Rehoboam, son of King Solomon. Solomon began construction of the Temple at Jerusalem in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the people of Israel left Egypt under Moses (I Kings 6:1). Since Solomon reigned 40 years (I Kings 11:42-43), we know that Jeroboam’s rebellion happened 512 years after the Exodus. For further information on King Jeroboam I, see http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8599-jeroboam and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeroboam.
Part III examines the exile of the House Israel in the context of God’s plan for the entire Kingdom of Israel and of the nations.