The Sabbath of the Old Testament
No one disagrees with the fact that the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath. However, there are many misconceptions about how they were to keep it.
One typical perception is that the Old Testament Sabbath was a burdensome yoke designed by God to be so rigorous that there was no way Israel could have kept it. To quote one publication:
The Sabbath of Adam, Noah and Abraham had been a simple example of resting, refreshment and recuperation. But at the Exodus, the Sabbath became a stringent command which did not allow the Israelites to do work of any kind. He could not cook an egg, pick a handful of food to eat on the Sabbath, gather a few sticks of wood for kindling, light a fire, carry any item out of the home, and he could not have any personal pleasure whatever all under the penalty of death if he did so.... Truly the Sabbath was very difficult to keep. It became a bondage-a heavy burden ... a day to be dreaded and feared (The Sabbath and The Christian, Foundation for Biblical Research, p. 7, 1974).
This is an absolutely false concept of the Old Testament Sabbath! Yet it has been accepted by most Christians throughout the history of the church. In fact, it was adopted by some of the early church fathers, who were affected by very strong anti-Jewish prejudices extant in the Roman Empire. In an effort to discredit Judaism and draw a wide distinction between Christians and Jews, they reinterpreted the Old Testament. For example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-160) taught that the Sabbath had been imposed on the Jews as "a mark to single them out for punishment they so well deserve for their infidelities" (From Sabbath to Sunday, Bacchiocchi, p. 186, 1977).
The Word of God reveals exactly the opposite of these false concepts!
Sabbath-Day of Freedom
The Sabbath of the Old Testament was intended to be a day of joy, of rest, of freedom-a day of delight for all mankind-and especially for the nation of Israel whom God singled out for a special covenant with Him.
Isaiah wrote of the Sabbath,
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight ... if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please ... then you will find joy in the Lord ... (ch. 58.13-14).
Isaiah's picture is one of joy and delight-hardly one of burden and oppression.
Psalm 92 is a psalm for the Sabbath and it characterises God's intent for this day:
It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, 0 Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night ... You have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox; ... The righteous will flourish like a palm tree ... they will flourish in the courts of our God" (vv. 1, 10, 12, 13).
The Sabbath was intended to be a day of rejoicing, of delight, of freedom from the responsibilities of the first six days of every week. It was to be a humanitarian lifting of the grinding burdens the Israelites had known as slaves in Egypt-a special blessing for God's people-a sign of their relationship with Him.
The freedom of the Sabbath is also indicated by the Sabbatical year God gave to Israel. Every seventh year the land was to be rested; servants were to be released; debts were to be cancelled. The year was to be one of freedom, rejoicing, and rejuvenation for the nation (Deut. 15. 1-18; Lev. 25.1-6).
Unfortunately, the Israelites didn't grasp the positive intent and blessing of the Sabbath day (and the Sabbatical year). If they had, God's simple command "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy... " (Ex. 20.8) would have sufficed. But it was not in their hearts to obey God! Just like many people today, their primary concern was physical security and financial gain. They viewed the Sabbath as an intrusion in their lives, as an obstacle to their pursuit of physical, occupational goals. They flagrantly ignored the Sabbath or looked for loopholes; they insisted on working every day and farming the land every year-all because they did not trust God as their Sustainer and Provider.
Are you willing to trust God as your sustainer by resting on the day He made holy?,
God's Law Given to Israel
In considering the Sabbath in the Old Testament, we must understand the role of God's law in general. When God began dealing with the nation of Israel, He codified for them His moral and spiritual laws. These are embodied in the Ten Commandments and the Two Great Commandments, which served as sort of a national constitution. But because Israel was a physical nation, these broad, general precepts had to be spelled out in much greater detail-as is done in modern nations like the United States.
The Seventh Commandment, forbidding adultery, was expanded in a legal way to prohibit various illicit sexual acts; appropriate punishment for each was prescribed (Ex. 22.16, 19; Lev. 18. 2-23; Deut. 22.13). Various types of stealing and the penalty for each were spelled out in detail (Ex. 22.1-15; Deut. 19.14-1 25.13-16). Various degrees of murder and manslaughter were defined just as they are in our modern legal systems (Ex. 21.12-32; Deut. 19.4-7, 11-13; 21.1-9).
Almost all of the Ten Commandments, including the Fourth, were expanded in the letter, in a legal way. Israel was given additional restrictions regarding the commanded day of rest. However, these were different in significant ways:
They were relatively few in number compared to those given for some of the other commandments;
Almost all were given in response to specific incidents of Sabbath breaking-not as general prohibitions; and,
They in no way made the Sabbath a grievous burden as some people falsely assume.
Restrictions Do Not Make Burden of Sabbath
Consider, in context, the Sabbath prohibitions given to Israel.
Staying at Home
When the Israelites insisted on going out to gather manna on the Sabbath (after Moses had just instructed them not to do so), God said, "Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out" (Ex. 16.29). In the context of looking for manna, this can hardly be taken as a general prohibition against leaving one's abode on the Sabbath. Indeed, the Israelites were commanded to attend holy convocations on the Sabbath (Lev. 23. 1-3).
Exodus 35.3 prohibits the lighting of fires on the Sabbath. While some people consider this a cruel restriction, many Bible commentators believe it refers to industrial-type fires, which would be used in construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 35. 4-29-1 see, the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible Commentary on these verses). Fires for domestic heating and cooking would already be lighted before the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday; and this single prohibition (even if it did include all fires) hardly proves that God wanted the Israelites to be cold and hungry every Sabbath day. In fact, they had been told to prepare for the Sabbath by cooking ahead of time (Ex. 16.23).
God's whole intent was to allow them to be free to rejoice and rest on the Sabbath. He did not want them burdened by routine physical responsibilities, which could have included the building of fires (quite a project in the wilderness).
Picking Up Sticks
Those who want to portray the Old Testament Sabbath as very oppressive cite Numbers 15.32. A man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. Moses, unsure of how to deal with him, kept him in custody until God revealed that he should be put to death.
Was God being arbitrary and harsh on a man who simply picked up a few twigs on the Sabbath?
Well, first of all, in a camp of several million people, gathering wood could be a lot of work. Secondly, Moses was not administering a repressive law. It was God who decided the man's fate. And God looked on the heart and read the motives which apparently were very much at odds with H is will. Indeed, if the man had wanted to keep the Sabbath as God intended, he certainly wouldn't have been out gathering wood. It wasn't just a matter of a short stroll through the camp and picking up a few sticks. He was defying the law of God.
Don't Bear Burdens
Jeremiah forbade the people to bear burdens on the Sabbath; but this was clearly in the context of commercial loads. It certainly didn't mean that a man could not pick up his bedroll on the Sabbath (Compare Jer. 17.19-27 with John 5.8-10).
Even after the Babylonian captivity, the people couldn't resist the temptation to work on the Sabbath. Nehemiah observed them treading wine presses, harvesting, loading produce, and buying wares from the men of Tyre (Neh. 13.15-22). He rebuked them sharply for desecrating the Sabbath and finally ordered the gates of Jerusalem closed Friday evening. He was forced to legislate obedience to people who simply had no heart to obey God.
Overall there are very few specific Sabbath prohibitions given in the Old Testament. Those which were given were intended to make the people free for rest and worship. And if they had loved God and wanted to obey Him, the Sabbath would have been a fantastic delight, as it can be for us - if we want to obey God!
God's Law in the New Covenant
Under the New Covenant, God is dealing with individuals, not a nation. His spiritual laws are not expanded in a legal way, as they were for Israel; rather, they are written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 8.10). God doesn't give us a list of do's and don'ts regarding sexual sins; rather He gets to the heart of the matter: "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). He doesn't define various types of murder; He goes much further and says, "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5.44).
In the New Covenant, God's basic spiritual laws, which were given to Israel in the Ten Commandments and in the Two Great Commandments, are the same as they've always been. But now they are to be written in our hearts and approached from a positive point of view.
We no longer ask, "What do / have to do?" Rather, we ask, "What does God want me to do?" We internalise God's laws-we make them part of our very being-because they express the will of our Father who has saved us by grace and put us into His family.
The Sabbath is very much apart of the overall will of God - a day of rest and freedom commanded by him for our physical and spiritual good.
Importance of Sabbath to God
The importance God places on the Sabbath is indicated by the prominence it occupies in His dealings with His people.
First, He chose to include it as part of the Ten Commandments, which were spoken by His own voice, written by His finger.
Second, He called the Sabbath a sign between Him and His chosen people (Ex. 31. 14-17; Ezek. 20.12).
And third, Israel's desecration of the Sabbath was cited as one of the primary reasons they went into captivity. Time and time again God upbraided them for their stiff-necked attitudes for Sabbath breaking and idolatry in particular. They couldn't seem to trust God enough to rest their land in the seventh year. Finally God gave them into the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians.
Many years later, in reflecting on the reasons Israel went into captivity, Nehemiah wrote, "What is this wicked thing you are doing - desecrating the sabbath day? Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath" (Neh. 13.17-18).
The Sabbath was an integral part of God's will for mankind as well as for Israel. He placed a great deal of importance on it. But even the national captivity and the preaching of all the prophets did not change the people's basic self-centredness. Indeed, following the days of Nehemiah they went to the opposite extreme. They made a complete ritual out of the Sabbath - still missing its whole meaning and purpose.