The Sabbath is first mentioned in Exodus 16, where the Lord used manna to teach Israel the weekly cycle. This was about a month before He gave them the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was a day of rest. It was not commanded as a day for church meetings or for worship. The Sabbath became a symbol of liberation and restoration, a help to Israel to remember that the Lord is its God and a reliable and visible indicator of their faithfulness. For that reason the Lord made His covenant promises and threats conditional on Sabbath faithfulness.
First mention – The word “Sabbath” appears for the first time in Exodus 16, where the Lord used manna to teach the Sabbath to Israel. This was about a month before He gave them the Ten Commandments.
Symbol of Liberation – The seventh day, seventh month and seventh year all pointed to liberation:
The Lord commanded Israel to observe the seventh day as a Sabbath because He liberated them from Egypt.
The seventh month of the year pointed to the great end-time judgment day and liberation of the world from sin.
In the seventh year of the seven-year-cycle slaves were set free and debts were to be cancelled.
Day of Rest – God commanded Israel to sabbath (rest) on the seventh day, and not to do any work. He also specifically ordered them to allow their children, servants, slaves and even their cattle to rest. This included foreigners. The Old Testament Sabbath was not proclaimed as a day for church meetings or as a day to worship the Lord; it was simply a day of rest. It was a day when everybody and everything in the entire community rests!
Help Israel remember – The Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments to serve as a sign “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you”. The Sabbath was to help Israel to remember that the Lord is their God and that He makes them holy. The surrounding nations were idol worshipers. The Sabbath was a token of Israel’s separation from idolatry and connection with the true God. No other institution which was committed to the Jews tended so fully to distinguish them from surrounding nations.
Test of Obedience – Even when the Sabbath was first introduced, it was given as a test “whether or not they will walk in My instruction”.
Throughout Israel’s history the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments as a reliable and visible indicator of their faithfulness to His covenant and statutes in general. Profaning the Sabbath was a synonym for rebellion, doing evil and rejecting His ordinances. Keeping His Sabbaths was a synonym for choosing what pleases Him; to love the name of the LORD.
Being a reliable test of obedience, the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments by making His covenant promises and threats conditional on Sabbath faithfulness. Israel’s exile to Babylon is directly linked to Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath and the Sabbath years.
Circumcision could not be a test of obedience because a man does not become uncircumcised when he departs from the LORD, but the Sabbath was a visible manifestation of faith that cannot be seen. A person or nation that does not trust the LORD will soon disregard His Sabbath.
First Sabbath Teaching
The first time that the name “Sabbath” appears in the Bible is in Exodus 16:23. This was about a month or two after Israel departed from Israel (v1), and their food was running out (v3). The LORD then gave them that super-food which they called manna. But the Lord used the manna to teach the Sabbath principle to Israel by giving them manna for the first six days of the week, with a double portion on the sixth day, but none on the seventh day. On other days the manna that was left over from the previous day “bred worms and became foul”, but not on the seventh day (v24). About a month later (Compare 19:1 to 16:1) the LORD gave them the Ten Commandments, including the commandment to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (20:8).
Symbol of Liberation
Deliverance from Egypt – The Ten Commandments In the book of Exodus was received a couple of months after God rescued Israel from Egypt. In it a reason is given for the requirement to observe the seventh day as a Sabbath, namely that the Creator rested on the seventh day. A reason was necessary because the specialness of the seventh day is not obvious. In Deuteronomy the Ten Commandments are repeated. This was 40 years later, just before Israel entered into the Promised Land. Here a different reason is given for the Sabbath requirement, namely that God delivered Israel from Egypt (Deut. 5:15). By Linking the Sabbath to deliverance from Egypt, the Sabbath was made a token of liberation.
Sabbath years – In the Jewish system the seven-day cycle, with the last day being a Sabbath, was also developed into a seven-year cycle, with the last year being a Sabbath for the land. In that Sabbath year the oppressed of the Hebrew society were liberated; slaves were to be set free (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18) and debts owed by fellow citizens were to be cancelled (Deut. 15:1-6; GNB).
Jubilee year – After every seven Sabbath years—every 50th year—followed the Jubilee year. During this year, which was also a Sabbath year, property that was sold during the preceding 50 years was restored to the original owner (Lev. 25:8-17, 23-55; 27:16-25; Num. 36:4). The liberation motif of the seventh year confirms the seventh day as token of liberation.
Seventh month – Just like Israel had a seven-day cycle and a seven-year cycle, with the seventh in each case a token of liberation, the seventh month of the year also pointed to liberation:
The most important day of the year was the Day of Atonement, on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:27), when atonement was made for the holy sanctuary, for the tent of meeting, for the altar, for the priests and for all the people (Lev 16:33-34). This day prefigured the great end-of-time Judgment.
The seventh month commenced with the feast of trumpets (Lev. 23:24-25, 28, 30-32), warning of the coming Day of Judgment. This feast prefigured the end-time warnings which God will give to the world prior to the end time Judgment.
The Day of Atonement was followed by the feast of booths (Lev. 23:34), when the entire nation lived in booths made of branches for seven days (v40-42) to commemorate the booths (shelters) in which Israel lived when the LORD brought them out of the land of Egypt (v43). The Feast of Booths also prefigured God’s people after they have been delivered of from the bondage of sin following the end-time judgment day. Through His judgment the LORD will deliver the earth and return everything to its proper state so that God’s love alone reigns in everything and everybody.
Thus the seventh day, seventh month and seventh year were all linked to liberation, being symbols of the end-time liberation of the world from the bondage of sin. The seventh month was the last month of the religious year, just as the Sabbath was the last day of the week and the Sabbath year the last year of the cycle of seven years.
Letter to the Hebrews – The New Testament letter that was specifically addressed to the Jewish Christians (the book of Hebrews) invites them to enter into the “Sabbath rest” (4:9) by believing (4:3), by obeying (4:6, 11) and by accepting by “faith” God’s “good news” (4:1-2). Although this is in the New Testament, this reflects the Old Testament view of the Sabbath as a token of salvation and redemption.
Day of Rest
The fourth commandment required Israelites to rest and to allow all people and even animals, which are under their control, also to rest; to relieve them from their burdens.
“but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you” (Ex. 20:10).
In the various versions of the Sabbath commandment the ones particularly singled out, to be allowed rest, are:
- the manservant, the maidservant and the son of the bondmaid;
- the cattle and
- the foreigner and the son of the foreigner;
- the son of the female slave
Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Ex. 23:12; Cf. also Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14)
Preachers are fond of using the convocation texts to motivate people to go to church, assuming that the phrase “holy convocation” implies a public meeting, for instance:
“The seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3).
But the Old Testament Sabbath was proclaimed as a day to rest; not a day for meetings. Note that the entire day is “a holy convocation”. The Hebrew word translated “convocation” simply refers to something that is called out. This can be a meeting or a day or many other things.
Preachers also often assume that the Sabbath is a day to spend with the Lord or in religious activities. That may have been the original intention of the seventh day, and it may be how Christ explained it, but that was not how the law was given to Israel through Moses. In the Law of Moses it is simply a day of rest. We find the following Sabbath commands in the Old Testament, and they only refer to work and rest:
Ex. 20:10 “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you”.
Ex. 31:14 “Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. … whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people”.
Ex. 35:2 “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death”.
Ex. 35:3 “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.”
Deut. 5:14 “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you”.
Lev. 16:31 “It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute”.
Lev. 23:3 “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings.”
Isaiah 58 contains a different formulation of the Sabbath commandment. Instead of work it refers to “doing your own pleasure” and “your own ways” and “speaking your own word”. Instead of rest it refers to calling the sabbath a delight and honourable:
Isa 58:13 “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, 14 Then you will take delight in the LORD, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Isaiah 58 is often used when preaching about the Sabbath, but these beautiful verses are frequently used to put a too strict definition on the Old Testament Sabbath; even forbidding joyous activities. These verses should not be interpreted contrary to the main body of the Sabbath commandments. The Sabbath was given as a day of rest to people that had to work hard from early morning to late evening, from a very young age, with no retirement schemes or medical aid. The Sabbath was intended for their benefit. To read Isaiah 58 as forbidding pleasurable activities would be inconsistent with the purpose of the Sabbath.
Preachers also often remark that the last part of Isaiah, from chapter 56 onwards, is a prophecy of the church age. It is proposed here that the description of the Sabbath in Isaiah 58 should be read in the New Testament context, as taught by Christ. He explained the Sabbath different from the Old Testament. He taught that the Sabbath was “made for man”, a day to show kindness to people in need and a day to do the work of the Lord. (See What Jesus taught may and must be done on the Sabbath.)
Sign of the Covenant
The Sabbath was elevated above other commandments to serve as a sign for Israel:
“Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you . . . that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13).
Many centuries later God reminded the Jews in Babylonian captivity of what He had done for their ancestors:
“I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them“ (Ezek. 20:12).
“Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God“ (Ezek. 20:20).
It was not a sign to other people: Like a on Israel’s finger, the Sabbath was to help Israel to “know” that the LORD is their God. This implies that no other nation observed the Sabbath. No other institution which was committed to the Jews tended so fully to distinguish them from surrounding nations. It was to be a token of their separation from the idolatry of the surrounding nations, and their connection with the true God.
If one accepts that the seven day cycle and the specialness of the seventh day was established at creation, why did the nations in the time of Moses not keep the Sabbath? One possibility is that the original Sabbath was forgotten by the world at large, and re-issued for Israel. Another is that the seventh day never before was not a day of mandatory rest, but set apart to be a blessing to mankind in another way.
Test of Obedience
But the Sabbath was also a sign in another sense. It was a reliable and visible marker or measure of Israel’s faithfulness. Even when the Sabbath was first introduced, it was given as a test:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. (Ex. 16:4)
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses:
“How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? (Ex. 16:28)
Notice that they failed to keep the Sabbath specifically, but that the Lord concluded that they refused to keep His commandments in general. This continued throughout Israel’s history. Notice in the following that the Lord continued to single out Sabbath observance as an indication of faithfulness to His covenant and statutes:
How blessed is the man who … keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” … To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, … I will give … a name better than that of sons and daughters … Also the foreigners who … love the name of the LORD … every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; (Isa. 56:2-6)
… the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes … and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. … they rejected My ordinances … they even profaned My Sabbaths … (Ezekiel 20:12-24)
… the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes … they profaned My sabbaths … and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. (Ezekiel 20:12-24)
“Then You (God) came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 9:13-14)
Being a reliable marker or measure or test of obedience, the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments by making His promises conditional on Sabbath faithfulness:
If … you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, Then you will take delight in the LORD, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father … (Isa 58:13-14)
Before the LORD exiled Israel to Babylon Jeremiah warned:
“if you … keep the sabbath day holy … then … this city will be inhabited forever. … But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy … then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” (Jer. 17:21-27)
Israel failed the Sabbath test of obedience. After the exile Nehemiah confirmed that the Lord exiled Israel to Babylon because they profaned the Sabbath (Neh. 13:17-18)
Circumcision never became a test of true obedience because circumcision could not measure faithfulness. Once circumcised, a man does not become uncircumcised when he departs from the LORD. But the Sabbath was a true test of faith and obedience. It is a visible manifestation of a Jew’s invisible faith. A Jew that does not trust the LORD will very soon disregard the Sabbath. It is also a reliable and visible marker of the nation’s faith. It is for that reason that the Sabbath became a synonym for His laws and statutes.
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