Today, I’m going to examine the Old Testament treatment of the Sabbath. In coming days, I’ll look at the New Testament, and ultimately, how we should observe this day.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Exodus 20:8-11 (ESV)
The keeping of the Sabbath is the fourth commandment. It provides a logical transition between the law that regulates our actions toward God and the law that regulates our actions toward others. The commandment to keep the Sabbath deals with both, directing us to sacrifice a day each week to God and to allow those who work for us to rest on that day.
This commandment is the only one that points directly to the actions of God as a basis — the resting of God at the completion of the six days of creation. It was first given in Exodus 16, even before the ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the law. It was connected to the collection of manna. The Israelites were to gather enough each morning for that day only, and were not to gather more for the next day or it would rot. (This is a precursor to give us this day our daily bread.) On the sixth day, however, they were to gather enough for two days for on the seventh, there was no manna from heaven. It was the only day manna lasted overnight.
To violate the Sabbath was a capital offense. In Numbers 15, we read of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath who was subsequently stoned to death for his transgression. The Sabbath was as serious as blasphemy, murder, and adultery.
The idea was expanded to include a Sabbath year every seven years when Israel was to let the land rest (Leviticus 25). Ultimately, it was to culminate in a year of jubilee after seven seven-year cycles — once every 50 years. There is no evidence that Israel ever practiced any of these year-long Sabbaths as a nation and they were judged for this, just as the prophets foretold. The exile to Babylon was in part to give the land the rest they had refused to grant it (2 Chronicles 36:21).
The one exception to the Sabbath rest was for the Levitical priesthood. The priests were to conduct the offerings in the tabernacle before the Lord seven days a week. On special Sabbaths, there was even more “work” to be done with offerings. The Levites were not given a blanket exemption, but were explicitly commanded to give offerings on the Sabbath.
The prophets seemed to speak against the Sabbath, but a careful reading reveals this is not quite the case. Isaiah 1:13-17 and 56:1-2 are prime examples. God is not suddenly anti-fourth commandment. The people were observing festivals and special days, but neglect his law in every other facet of their lives. God desired his people to keep the Sabbath, while keeping with the other nine commandments as well. They incurred his wrath by their disobedience, and their clinging to excuses to feast and rest based on his word was blatant hypocrisy.