Keeping the Sabbath Holy (Part 1 of 2)

Keeping the Sabbath Holy (Part 1 of 2)

by Ronald L. Dart

Just what does it mean to “keep the Sabbath?”  What should a person do on that day?  Or, as some would prefer to ask, what should a person NOT do?  Can you work at your normal job?  What about emergencies?  Can you buy groceries on the Sabbath?  What if you have unexpected guests?  The Sabbath is indeed a holy day, and to worship God properly requires a right view of His day.

When I was fresh out of high school and looking for work, I took a job working twelve hours a day, seven days a week.  At $1.25 an hour, I was making pretty good money, or so I thought.  The way I figured it, I could earn 455 dollars a month, live with my folks, and buy a new car.

And so I went to work.  I started at six in the evening and worked until six in the morning.  I had a ten minute break very two hours, and a short break for “lunch” at midnight.  I was working on a drill press helping fulfill a military sub-contract.  The lathe operators would cut the cast iron stock to shape and then I would place the finished stock into a jig on my drill press and put a hole in the middle of it, shaping a flange at the same stroke.  The job required absolutely no thought.  There were three simple movements required on each piece–on to the press, down with the tool, off to the stack of completed material.  This went on for twelve hours.

When we got off at six in the morning, there was the bus ride home, a shower, a bite to eat, and a few minutes to unwind before getting to bed about eight o’clock to dream about the drill presses.  I got up about four in the afternoon, showered and shaved, had a bite to eat, puttered about for a short while, and then caught the bus back to work.

When I started on that job, I had no idea how depressing it would be.  Remember, I was eighteen, single, and just out of high school.  I didn’t last long–I quit.  But I have often thought of the other men who were working that same job.  They didn’t have the same option I had.  They had children to clothe, mouths to feed, and rent to pay.  Jobs were not that easy to come by in those days.  In truth, those men were not far removed from being slaves.

It is looking back on this experience that helps me truly appreciate the Sabbath day.  Too often we think of God’s law as restrictive, prohibitive, taking away from us things we want.  If you happen to be a person of leisure, you may feel the Sabbath interferes with your recreation.  But if you are a working stiff, you are more likely to think of the Sabbath as a day of liberty, of freedom, of rest.  You are more likely to welcome the Sabbath as the great gift it is.

The Fourth Commandment

If we are to understand Sabbath observance, the obvious place to start is with the commandment itself, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”

Most of us make a peculiar omission when we talk about “keeping the Sabbath.”  For merely saying we keep the Sabbath stops one word short.  God said, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”  Simply put, that which is holy belongs to God.  The Temple and all its accouterments, for example, were holy because they belonged to God.

In this case, the Sabbath is declared to be holy, and we are commanded to keep it that way.  The law goes on to explain: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work . . .” (Exodus 20:10).  Six days of the week belong to us, but the seventh day belongs to God. 

            Not only are we to keep in mind that the Sabbath day does not belong to us, and to avoid any work on that day, we are not to require work of others: “. . . thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.”

Does this mean you stop the boy from delivering your paper on the Sabbath day?  No, he doesn’t work for you.  In most cases he is self-employed and makes his own decisions about when to work and when to take off.  The commandment forbids you to require work of anyone who is under your control.  Notice the use of the possessive: thy servant, thy daughter, even thy stranger.  The commandment is to you and has to do with what you do and what you require.  It does not call on you to prevent work by others, nor does it prevent you from benefiting from the labors of those who decide to work.  Otherwise, you would have to avoid even the use of electricity on the Sabbath.

Why are we to do this?  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11).  Some funny arguments have grown up around the Sabbath.  There are those, for example, who believe the Sabbath originated with Moses.  And yet it is plain that in resting on the seventh day, God set it apart and hallowed it from creation.  To hallow something is to make it holy.  The Sabbath day was made holy right from the start.

As Jesus put it, the Sabbath was made for man.  It was created when man was created.  The fourth commandment itself points to creation as the origin of the Sabbath.

The account in Deuteronomy adds another element to the Sabbath: “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

To people born in slavery, the Sabbath was without a doubt the greatest expression of liberty these people had ever known.  No longer did they have to work seven days out of seven.  No longer were they left without time to think about God, to worship, to pray, to rest as God Himself rested.


The commandment was pretty simple.  “Keep the seventh day apart as belonging to God.  Do not work on that day.  Rest on that day.  Do not require work on that day.  Remember that God your creator rested on the seventh day, and remember that He liberated you from slavery.”  That was all the fourth commandment had to say about the Sabbath.

Even though that is all there is to the commandment, it doesn’t take a great theologian to realize that there are a lot of unanswered questions raised here.  For example, does it really matter which day is the Sabbath, or can we keep any one day in seven?  Just what constitutes work?  What if my house catches fire–would it be work to remove some of my belongings?

These two versions of the Ten Commandments are not all the Bible tells us about Sabbath observance, but there is an important difference between this commandment and all the other Scriptures about the Sabbath–all the other references are judgments.  What difference does that make?  Judgments are administrative statements applying the law to specific situations.  The principle remains in force, but it may not always have the same force when applied to different circumstances in different times.

There has never been a law given which does not require interpretation.  And if there is to be official interpretation, then sort of official administration is called for.

Someone must have decision making powers in any governmental structure.  Israel was no exception, and the procedure for handling questions and disputes was described in Deuteronomy 17:8.  If there arose a matter too hard for them in judgment–especially a matter creating controversy–then they were to get up to the seat of government and inquire of the priests, Levites, and judges.  These officials were charged with the responsibility of rendering judgments in doubtful matters.  Their decisions took on all the force of law for those who had so inquired (verse 10), even to the extent of the death penalty (verse 12).

These judges could not decide arbitrarily.  They were constrained to derive their decisions from the law and to support them by exposition of the law (verse 11).  This was, in effect, the supreme court of the day.  Like our Supreme Court, their decisions actually became a part of the body of law, and we find biblical writers referring to the law in terms of commandments, statutes, and judgments.  Like our Supreme Court, they made narrow decisions that applied only to the case in point or they made broad decisions that could find application in many similar cases.

Whatever the decision, it became the law of the land, and was just as binding on applicable cases as if it were written with the finger of God.

Sometimes the judgment came from God Himself.  Take for example the young man who went out to gather sticks on the Sabbath day.  Numbers 15 draws a distinction between sinning through ignorance, and sinning presumptuously: “But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously [margin: with a high hand], whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:30).

In this context, a case study is included of a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath (verses 32-36).  He was arrested and held “because it was not declared what should be done to him.”  In other words, the law did not specify this particular violation–after all, no law can cover every contingency.

God’s judgment was that he should be put death, but in terms of the courts, this was a “narrow” decision.  Not every man who ever gathered sticks on the Sabbath would be stoned.  This man had not acted out of ignorance, weakness, necessity or even stupidity.  He had acted defiantly–with a high hand.  His attitude and intent had figured in the decision.  Jesus would later make it clear that human and even animal necessity could create exceptions in the Sabbath Law.  This man had reproached God by sinning “with a high hand.”

We will continue this thought next time.

For further information feel free to contact us at the following address:

Christian Educational Ministries

P.O. Box 560

Whitehouse, TX 75791

Office: (903)-509-2999

Fax: (903)-509-1139

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