Every week we participate in a memorial feast which reminds us about the work of our Lord in achieving victory over sin and in providing a means by which we can be released from the bondage of sin and death. This meal is an appropriate time for self-examination as we contemplate the life of our Lord and compare our lives with his.

Under the Law, Israel were commanded to keep a number of feasts through which Yahweh taught them godliness and commitment. One of these significant occasions is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah in his fifty-eighth chapter. In this chapter he comments on the following events:

  1. the blowing of the trumpet (v1)
  2. the remembrance of Israel’s sin (v1)
  3. fasting and affliction (v3)
  4. the release of the oppressed (v6–7)
  5. the real significance of the Sabbath (v13–14).

All these allusions point to a specific day in Israel, a single day that came once every 50 years—the day of jubilee. This unique day probably only occurred once or twice in anyone’s lifetime, but its details brought together the whole embodiment of what God was seeking from faithful men and women.

The day itself commenced on the Day of Atonement (Lev 25:9). A summary of this day is given in Leviticus 23:23–32 where two points of emphasis are clearly made. There was to be absolutely no work undertaken (v24,25,28,30,31,32), and Israel must afflict its soul (v27,29,32). The Law was teaching the nation that there can be no remission of sins unless men and women agree to cease from sin and demonstrate a deep, self-sacrificing humility. Tragically the Jew misunderstood the significance of resting on the Sabbath and placed intolerable burdens upon the people. What God sought on that day was for man to cease from his own endeavours and pursuits and execute God’s justice and judgment instead (Isa 56:1–2).

The Seventh Year

The fiftieth year in Israel intensified these principles. Firstly there was the law in which the land was to keep a Sabbath every 7th year (Lev 25:1–7). In that year land owners were not permitted to sow or reap. Instead the fruit of the land was to be left for the poor of the people and for the beasts of the field (Ex 23:11). Land owners could still eat of that fruit as well, but they were not permitted to labour through sowing, pruning or harvesting and they were to generously open up their whole fields for the poor and stranger. In this same year the law of God was read in their ears (Deut 31:10–12).

The lesson God was teaching Israel was that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from His mouth. As the labourer was utterly dependent upon the blessings of heaven in that 7th year so he had to learn that the fruit God seeks is that which comes from above (Jas 3:17–18).

The Fiftieth Year

Closely following this law came the law of the jubilee and its associated implications in Lev 25:8–22. The 49th year was a Sabbath year and God decreed that the 50th year would also be a Sabbath year. In this way Israel was being asked to cease the normal cycle of agricultural work for two years in a row and put their trust in God for about two-and-a-half to three years.

The jubilee began on the day of atonement and it was heralded by the trumpet sounding forth proclaiming freedom and liberty. Imagine the sense of relief amongst those who were in debt. As the high priest emerged from the most holy place triumphant over sin, and the blast of the jubilee trumpet was relayed from city to city, those who were in deep distress would have offered their profound thankfulness to the Redeemer of Israel. Their sins had been forgiven and they could return to their inheritance and family and start anew.

The jubilee law uses an expression, “proclaim liberty” (Lev 25:10) and this is picked up and explained in Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me; because Yahweh hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

Now this verse was in turn quoted by the Lord in the synagogue at Nazareth as an expression of his mission to Israel—to provide forgiveness of sins and release from the bondage of all that came into the world because of sin (Luke 4:16–19).

The Jubilee in Isaiah’s Day

Now what is the relevance of all this to Isaiah’s day? We learn from Isaiah 37:30–31 that God was to give Israel a sign of His faithfulness in the days of Hezekiah: “And this shall be a sign unto thee, Ye shall eat this year such as groweth of itself; and the second year that which springeth of the same: and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruit thereof. And the remnant that is escaped of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward.”

The nation had been devastated by the brutal onslaught of the Assyrian and that means that the normal agricultural cycle would have been suspended. Now that God had promised them victory over the enemy the people would have been eager to get back to their fields and start their lives again. But God said, ‘No! I want you to wait until the third year!’ The words of Isaiah 37:30–31 allude back to the jubilee law and the implication behind this is that the destruction of the Assyrian (a symbol of rest from sin and death) occurred in the 49th year of the cycle with the following year being a jubilee year.

Look at the faith God was asking them to manifest. Jerusalem had been besieged by a savage and brutal power and the king in whom they trusted had suddenly developed a life-threatening disease. God was saying that He would perform the impossible by destroying an army that had never known defeat and heal an incurable disease. And on top of that He was now asking them to depend on His bounty for the next three years!

The purpose of this trial is explained as providing Judah the opportunity of taking root in the soil of love and being “rooted and built up in God, and stablished in the faith… abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Eph 3:17; Col 2:7).

Our trust in God is sometimes tested to similar limits. It is often when we have no one else to turn to, no one else to depend on, nowhere else to go, that we learn our absolute need for our gracious heavenly Father’s help. This is what it means to lean upon Him in time of need. This is what our Father seeks from us.

“Lift Up Thy Voice Like a Trumpet”

It would appear that Israel kept this command but when the 50th year arrived Isaiah was commanded to lift up his voice like a trumpet and proclaim to Israel their sins (58:1). This means that there were some in Israel who kept the jubilee Sabbath but failed to implement the reality of what God intended. The day of atonement had introduced the jubilee year, but the sins of some of the people were now being openly declared instead of being covered.

And yet the people had turned to God. In Isaiah 58:2 they are described as seeking God daily and delighting in His ways. They were doing righteousness and seeking God in prayer. There was indeed a wonderful revival of the Truth in the days of Hezekiah, and the whole drama of deliverance from certain death through the representative death and resurrection of their king had wrought comfort and forgiveness in Zion (Isa 33:24; 40:1–2). But there was still further spiritual development needed amongst them.

The Fist of Wickedness

When we read verses 3–4 we begin to discover that the heart was not yet fully reformed. They are depicted as asking these questions: “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?”

They kept the fast and afflicted themselves as Leviticus required, but they did so with a desire to impress God with their actions and secure some benefit by those actions. They were performing the ritual of the law but their attitude and deeds didn’t match what God intended.

God’s answer reveals their true state. They were finding their own pleasure rather than God’s. They were continuing to exact servitude from their servants instead of releasing them. They were insulting each other; arguing and debating and even smiting each other! (v3–4). They looked the part with their long faces and sanctimonious demeanour, but their actions betrayed them. This wasn’t what God proposed.

It is a salutary reminder to us all. We cannot keep the memorial feast and live a life that betrays the principles of that meal. We cannot partake of bread which speaks of self-denial and live in pleasure. We cannot drink the fruit of the vine and show little commitment to the ways of God. Our life must remain consistent with the values exhibited in the death and resurrection of our Lord.

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?”

So what did God require of them? In verses 6–7 we have a list of eight vital requirements; the first four involved undoing the wrong, the other four outlined what needed still to be done. They can be listed as follows:

1 “to loose the bands of wickedness”

If they were exercising any unjust and cruel authority over others, if they had bound them in any way contrary to the laws of God and the interests of justice, they were to release them.

2 “to undo the heavy burdens” (literally, “loose the bands of the yoke”)

If they were compelling others to servitude more rigidly than the law of Moses allowed, or holding them to contracts which had been fraudulently made, or exacting strict payment from persons unable to meet their obligations, they were to release those people from their debts.

3 “to let the oppressed [Hebrew, ‘the broken’] go free

They were being commanded to free their servants and give them the same liberty that they enjoyed from God.

4 “break every yoke”

They had to release everyone from their oppressive burdens.

The lesson in these four points is clear. We who have received forgiveness for our debts must also forgive the debts of others. We who have had our burden removed must lighten the load of others and carry their burden. If we have ought against our brother we must first reconcile. We are not to smite our fellow-labourer with the fist of wickedness. We ought instead to love and edify.

5 “to deal thy bread to the hungry”

Fasting is not just abstaining from food. God is saying that fasting is filling others with your food at your expense. Your self denial can benefit others.

Who are the hungry? They incorporate those who lack material blessings, those who are hungering after righteousness and those who need to be fed with the Word of life. On a natural plane we see the example of Job who fed and clothed the poor (Job 31:13–23), and on a spiritual plane we see Paul feeding the ecclesias with milk and meat (1 Cor 3:2).

6 “bring the poor that are cast out [Hebrew, ‘restless, straying, wandering, like a refugee’] to thy house”

There were many wandering out of the way. Go and bring them home and help them.

7 “cover the naked”

Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8; Jas 5:20).

8 “hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (ie, thine own kindred, thine own brethren).

We are exhorted by Peter to love the brotherhood (1 Pet 2:17).

These imperatives will become the basis of our acceptance or rejection in the day of judgment because they are alluded to in Matthew 25:35–40. The Lord is speaking about those who will inherit the kingdom (inheritance is the subject of the jubilee year), and he commends the righteous in this way: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

When we do this to the least of our brethren we do it unto Christ and this elevates our relationship with each other beyond just an association of brethren. Our closeness towards our Lord must be identically reflected in our closeness with each other.

If we can approach life by serving and helping our brethren in secret then God will reward us openly (Matt 6:16–18). Or in the words of Isaiah 58:10: “Then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday.” This is so different from the public declarations of self-righteousness described in verse 3.

The chapter concludes by outlining the real principles of keeping the Sabbath (v13). It is ceasing to do what we want to do and say and think, and replacing it with a life that seeks to honour Him in all things. When we submit our will and our thoughts to His will, then we are keeping the intent of the Sabbath every day.

If we can do this, then God will feed us (a deliberate contrast to fasting) with the inheritance of Jacob (v14). This is what the year of jubilee foreshadowed—a returning from the oppression and captivity of sin and death and a receiving of the inheritance of the land for ever. May that time of inheritance soon come.