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THEOLOGY > God > Work of Creation > The Seventh Day > Sabbath Observance     


With the Sabbath observance there was to be a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3), a Sabbath of “solemn rest.” It is not clear exactly what is meant by the holy convocation; nor is it known precisely what the people did on this day, though sacrifices were surely a part of the activities. On the Sabbath the daily sacrifice was to be doubled (Num. 28:9-10), and the bread on the table was to be replaced (Lev. 24:8). Psalm 92 is identified in the title as a song for the Sabbath day. Perhaps, later practices at the synagogue, such as speaking, discussion, and prayer, reflects some of the activities on the holy day. Thus the day was invested not only with a practical purpose, rest after work, but also it was invested with spiritual meaning that went beyond the mere observance of a day.

As the people rested they reflected upon their Creation, their redemption, and the covenant that had been given to them. In their rest was a reminder of the mighty works of God for them. The day also served as a weekly harbinger of a greater covenant which would result in a redemption that would bring about a new Creation and an eternal rest (see: Sign of the Sabbath).

Strict observance of the Sabbath was required. In both accounts of the Ten Commandments, the instruction is given: “you shall do no work” (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). The instruction is clear and emphatic; the nation was told to keep the Sabbath “for it is holy to you” (v. 14). Additional directions for the Sabbath day contained God’s instruction to Moses that whoever profanes it “shall surely be put to death” (twice the statement is made) and that the person who is guilty “shall be cut off from among his people” (Ex. 31:14-15; also see 35:2). The severest punishment awaited the Israelite who violated the Sabbath; the holy day could not be desecrated.

Later in Exodus Moses informs the nation of a specific act regarding the day of rest: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (35:3). In Numbers a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath, obviously gathering them in order to start a fire; he was put under guard, awaiting the Lord’s instructions. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘This man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp’” (15:35). And that is what the nation did, practicing capital punishment as ordained by God.

Proper observance of the Sabbath was not optional, but was carefully delineated; and violators were rigorously punished. Keeping the Sabbath would result in blessing; through Isaiah God instructed the nation.

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 day of Yahweh honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in Yahweh; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of Yahweh has spoken (58:13-14).

Through Isaiah God gives the proper attitude toward the Sabbath: it is to be a “delight”. It was not to be a burden to keep, a commandment to obey, a ritual to perform, but a day of rest and worship in which to delight. It was to be a day devoted to God, and God was to be enjoyed and honored on His Sabbath day.

The people were not to do their own pleasure on God’s holy day. Rather, the day was to be a “delight,” with the people delighting themselves in the Lord. If they did so then God would cause them to “ride on the high hills” and feed them “with the heritage of Jacob.”

Jeremiah relates God’s judgment upon the inhabitants of the nation for their violation of the Sabbath. After confronting the people with their abuse of the Sabbath day God issued a warning through Jeremiah: “But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (17:27). Judgment was administered by God through Babylon for a number of reasons, one of which was desecration of the Sabbath.

After the return of the nation from seventy years of captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah contended with the people for their profaning the Sabbath once again like their fathers had done: “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, ‘What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath’” (13:17-18). By profaning the Sabbath, the nation was rejecting God’s rest at Creation and His instruction to them at Sinai. Additionally, the meaning of the Sabbath for them was denied by their failure to honor the sacred day; through their rejection of the day they were rejecting the God of the day. Sabbath observance was a sign between the people and God, and a sign to the world that the people of Israel were the people of God.

Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths,
To be a sign between them and Me,
That they might know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies them.
Ezek. 20:12

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