Here is, I. The institution of the sabbatical year, Exod. 23:10, 11. Every seventh year the land was to rest; they must not plough nor sow it at the beginning of the year, and then they could not expect any great harvest at the end of the year: but what the earth did produce of itself should be eaten from hand to mouth, and not laid up. Now this was designed, 1. To show what a plentiful land that was into which God was bringing them—that so numerous a people could have rich maintenance out of the produce of so small a country, without foreign trade, and yet could spare the increase of every seventh year. 2. To remind them of their dependence upon God their great landlord, and their obligation to use the fruit of their land as he should direct. Thus he would try their obedience in a matter that nearly touched their interest. Afterwards we find that their disobedience to this command was a forfeiture of the promises, 2 Chron. 36:21. 3. To teach them a confidence in the divine Providence, while they did their duty—that, as the sixth day’s manna served for two day’s meat, so the sixth year’s increase should serve for two years’ subsistence. Thus they must learn not to take thought for their life, Matt. 6:25. If we are prudent and diligent in our affairs, we may trust Providence to furnish us with the bread of the day in its day.
II. The repetition of the law of the fourth commandment concerning the weekly sabbath, Exod. 23:12. Even in the year of rest they must not think that the sabbath day was laid in common with the other days, but, even that year, it must be religiously observed; yet thus some have endeavoured to take away the observance of the sabbath, by pretending that every day must be a sabbath day.
III. All manner of respect to the gods of the heathen is here strictly forbidden, Exod. 23:13. A general caution is prefixed to this, which has reference to all these precepts: In all things that I have said unto you, be circumspect. We are in danger of missing our way on the right hand and on the left, and it is at our peril if we do; therefore we have need to look about us. A man may ruin himself through mere carelessness, but he cannot save himself without great care and circumspection: particularly, since idolatry was a sin which they were much addicted to, and would be greatly tempted to, they must endeavour to blot out the remembrance of the gods of the heathen, and must disuse and forget all their superstitious forms of speech, and never mention them but with detestation. In Christian schools and academies (for it is in vain to think of reforming the play-houses), it were to be wished that the names and stories of the heathen deities, or demons rather, were not so commonly and familiarly used as they are, even with intimations of respect, and sometimes with forms of invocation. Surely we have not so learned Christ.
IV. Their solemn religious attendance on God in the place which he should choose is here strictly required, Exod. 23:14-17. 1. Thrice a year all their males must come together in a holy convocation, that they might the better know and love one another, and keep up their communion as a dignified and peculiar people. 2. They must come together before the Lord (Exod. 23:17) to present themselves before him, looking towards the place where his honour dwelt, and to pay their homage to him as their great Lord, from and under whom they held all their enjoyments. 3. They must feast together before the Lord, eating and drinking together, in token of their joy in God and their grateful sense of his goodness to them; for a feast is made for laughter, Eccl. 10:19. O what a good Master do we serve, who has made it our duty to rejoice before him, who feasts his servants when they are in waiting! Never let religion be called a melancholy thing, when its solemn services are solemn feasts. 4. They must not appear before God empty, Exod. 23:15. Some free-will offering or other they must bring, in token of their respect and gratitude to their great benefactor; and, as they were not allowed to come empty-handed, so we must not come to worship God empty-hearted; our souls must be filled with grace, with pious and devout affections, holy desires towards him, and dedications of ourselves to him, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased. 5. The passover, pentecost, and feast of tabernacles, in spring, summer, and autumn, were the three times appointed for their attendance: not in winter, because travelling was then uncomfortable; not in the midst of their harvest, because then they were otherwise employed; so that they had no reason to say that he made them to serve with an offering, or wearied them with incense.
V. Some particular directions are here given about the three feasts, though not so fully as afterwards. 1. As to the passover, it was not to be offered with leavened bread, for at that feast all leaven was to be cast out, nor was the fat of it to remain until the morning, lest it should become offensive, Exod. 23:18. 2. At the feast of pentecost, when they were to begin their harvest, they must bring the first of their first-fruits to God, by the pious presenting of which the whole harvest was sanctified, Exod. 23:19. 3. At the feast of ingathering, as it is called (Exod. 23:16), they must give God thanks for the harvest-mercies they had received, and must depend upon him for the next harvest, and must not think to receive benefit by that superstitious usage of some of the Gentiles, who, it is said, at the end of their harvest, seethed a kid in its dam’s milk, and sprinkled that milk-pottage, in a magical way, upon their gardens and fields, to make them more fruitful next year. But Israel must abhor such foolish customs.