In the custom of the sabbatical year the Israelites were to learn that the land must not be fully exploited. That is to say, the land had an existence of its own. It did not exist solely for human exploitation (verses 4-5). Israelite history indicates that these provisions were sometimes ignored (26:34-35; Jeremiah 34:4), as were nearly all the provisions of the Mosaic Law. In times of religious renewal, nonetheless, the rule of the sabbatical year was taken seriously and restored (cf. Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).
As for the difficulty and potential danger incurred by letting the land lie fallow for a year, God's people were to trust in His provision for those who obey Him (verses 18-22).
The Fiftieth Year, the year of the restoration of property, was called the Jubilee, a name derived from the ram's horn (yobel) that was blown to mark it (verse 9). It is worth observing that this year began on the Feast of the Atonement, a fact suggesting how the first day of the year, Rosh Hashanah, eventually became identified with the autumnal feast that we examined in 23:23-25.
The Jubilee was the occasion on which all alienated farmland and village homes, whether held in surety or in payment of a debt, was to be returned to the family that originally inherited it. Ideally, thus, no family could lose its proper inheritance for more than half a century. This humane and democratic provision guaranteed a certain measure of political and social equality. In an era when all wealth was based on the holding of real estate, no family could become too poor, nor any family too rich, if all real estate had to revert to its original owner within fifty years. The land would necessarily be divided according to a rough equality, and hence wealth would be divided in the same way. This was the reason that respect for inherited family property would mean so much to the Bible's social prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 21:1-19) and Micah (Mica 2:2).
The Jubilee rule pertained only to inherited pasture, farmland, woods, and village homes, not to property in walled cities (verses 29-30). Special provision was made for the Levites, who did not inherit land separately, as did the other tribes (verses 32-34).
Besides the land, the law of the Jubilee pertained to the freedom of those whom poverty had forced into slavery (verses 35-43). The people, like the land, belonged to the Lord (verse 55).