In the last number we looked at the Week, and saw how it reflected the seven days of Genesis 1. In this number I’d like to look more particularly at the Sabbath in history.
Briefly, the seventh day was held to be a special day (more or less, allowing for corruptions) by all nations from creation until the resurrection of Jesus. No other day was held in such honour. Even though nations interpreted the day in accordance with their own brand of beliefs or superstitions, it was nevertheless always Saturday, the seventh day of the week. The Old Testament has a vast emphasis on the sacredness of the Sabbath, and the Israelite people were supposed to treat it with great respect, but signally failed to do so. The seriousness of the situation cannot better be recalled than by the prophetic word given to Jeremiah, which we’ll quote here in full because of its importance. (17:20-27)
20 And say unto them, Hear you the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that enter in by these gates:
21 Thus says the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem;
22 Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, neither do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
23 But they obeyed not, neither inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear, nor receive instruction.
24 And it shall come to pass, if you diligently hearken unto me, says the LORD, to bring in no burden through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day, to do no work therein;
25 Then shall there enter into the gates of this city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: and this city shall remain for ever.
26 And they shall come from the cities of Judah, and from the places about Jerusalem, and from theland of Benjamin, and from the plain, and from the mountains, and from the south, bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the LORD.
27 But if you will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
The words in bold type are the crux of the prophecy. God commanded His people to hallow, set apart, make sacred, the Sabbath day, because “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day, wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) The Lord Himself hallowed the Sabbath day, and blessed it. He expected His people to do likewise. If they hallowed it, He would bless them, if not, then they must be prepared for the consequences. Jeremiah saw those consequences in action, as the Jews were taken away into Babylon, and their city destroyed.
The inescapable conclusion from these verses is that the seven days of creation were of great importance in the sight of the Lord, and the Sabbath was, so to speak, the seal upon the six days of creation. It was “because” the Lord made the heavens and the earth in six days, that the seventh became special. Therefore the Sabbath cannot be viewed in isolation. It crowns the six days of work. I know that many Christians consider the six days as anything but days of creation. They scorn those whom they call “young earthers”. They prefer to think in terms of vast ages of development of the earth, and believe that science has given them adequate proof of these lengthy time spans. But this is not the subject I want to discuss here. I am focusing on what God Himself has declared to His people Israel. If we as Christians despise that message, we do so to our own hurt, because “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
In Genesis 2:3 we read, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.” The Hebrew word “rested” is SHABATH from which the noun Sabbath is derived. Shabath mean “to cease”, but in no way does it suggest rest, relaxation, refreshment, and so on. There is another word to express that. It is “NOAH”, the word used for the Patriarch’s name. Shabath suggests a pause, a cessation, a desisting from that which went before. And this explains the prophetic word given to Jeremiah, quoted above. The mention of “bearing burdens” suggests trade, and this had to cease on the Sabbath day. God had ceased from His work, and He commanded His people likewise to cease from their work. This is the negative aspect of the Sabbath, what must not be done. The positive aspect is that God blessed the Sabbath day, and His people were meant to enter into those blessings. The restriction from work was, of course, a blessing in itself, but far more was intended. Isaiah made this plain in his prophetic word – (58:13-14)
13 If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and honour him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words:
14 Then shall you delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
Once again we find great emphasis on the importance of the Sabbath day to the Lord. It is “my holy day”, it is a “delight”, it is “the holy of the Lord”, and it is “honourable.” As man turns from his daily work, leaving his tools of trade for a while, and inclines his mind to the Lord, and to those things which God has spoken, so he finds a “delight in the Lord”; he begins to “ride upon the high places”, (whatever that meant, and no doubt it had a significant meaning to those of Isaiah’s day.) There is such a wealth of blessing contained within these words, that it causes one to pause, and wonder why God’s people lacked the appetite for such blessings. Hear what Amos was given by the Lord, (Chapter 8)
4 Hear this, you who swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail,
5 Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit?
6 That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yes, and sell the refuse of the wheat?
7 The LORD has sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works.
8 Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn who dwells therein?
It seems that the Jews, after returning from the Babylonian captivity, decided they would never again make the mistake of forgetting the fourth commandment. Instead they compiled rigid rules for the Sabbath, to ensure that they would never return to captivity. The leaders of the people, the Pharisees and Sadducees, advertised their demands, teaching the people their own interpretation of the law. It was all based on the negative aspect, in other words all the things which must not be done, rather than emphasising the joy of that which should be done on God’s holy day.
Eventually, after 4,000 years of human history, the Son of God entered the world. He declared Himself to be “the Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5) How could He say this? Because He was the Word, and “all things were made by Him.” (John 1:3) He was the Creator, and therefore He was also the One who rested on the seventh day, and gave the commandment to His people to honour the Sabbath day. It was the Lord Christ who instituted the Sabbath, and therefore He rightly claimed to be “the Lord of the Sabbath.”
In addition, we find Jesus emphasising the positive aspect of the Sabbath day. “I will ask you one thing, He said, is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9) Whereupon He healed the man with the withered hand, and the people who watched went mad with rage, and wanted to kill Him. So much for the swing of the pendulum after returning from Babylon.In those 400 years, the Sabbath day had become a day of restriction, a veritable minefield of prohibition, when the common folk were frightened to put one foot before another for fear of being thrown out of the synagogue. “You make the law of no effect by your vain traditions,” the Lord said. (Matt.15:6)
In one’s reading of the Gospels, it becomes patently obvious that the Sabbath was a constant source of contention between Jesus and the leaders of the Jews. The miracles suggested to them that He might in fact be the promised Messiah, but as they watched Him, they saw Him “breaking” the Sabbath, and therefore He was in their sight a sinner. And so we find that from creation onwards, the Sabbath was attacked, forgotten, neglected, despised, misinterpreted, made into a bondage, and generally misused. The blessings God had in store were withheld. Satan himself must have been behind all this. There was something more in the institution of the Sabbath than had been generally understood, and he was intent on preventing that blessing from reaching mankind. In the next number we must pursue this topic further.