The Decalogue at Sinai — Exodus 20
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“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. (Ex. 20: 1-2, 8-11)
Ex. 20 describes the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Leaving Egypt, the Israelites led by Moses walked to Mount Sinai where God would give Moses the Law or Decalogue. Amidst the lightning and thunder, Moses went up the mountain by himself to meet God there.
In these 10 commandments dealing with various aspects of life, the issue of the Sabbath was mentioned in the 4th. It is to this commandment that we would look at here.
Before looking at the commandment itself, it must be said that we shouldn't make too much of the length of the commandment or the number of verses that covers it. Versification is not part of the original text and thus not inspired, therefore just because the 4th commandment contains more verses compared to the others does not mean anything. As for the length of the commandment, that does not by itself signify anything regarding the importance of any particular commandment. The commandment could be longer than others because it has higher specificity, needs to be clarified otherwise it is ambiguous or any other reason. To make much of the length of this commandment as if its length signifies importance is to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.
The 4th commandment can be seen to be made up of 4 principle parts:
- the commandment
- what the commandment teaches
- a specific application of the commandment
- the reason for the commandment
1. The commandment
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." (v. 8)
The 4th commandment is clear enough. God has designated a certain day which He calls the Sabbath. We are to remember this Sabbath day which the Lord has designated, and keep it holy. The later part of that commandment proves that this Sabbath day is on the 7th day of the week, which is Saturday.
It has been said that the word "remember" used here means that the Sabbath commandment was kept from the Creation of the world. This however does not necessarily follow since the Israelites were already keeping the Sabbath commandment in Ex. 16.
2. What the commandment teaches
"Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God." (vv. 9-10a)
God did not leave the Israelites alone to guess how exactly does "keeping the Sabbath holy" looked like. To keep the Sabbath holy for the Israelites is to cease from all their work and rest on the seventh day. Instead of working, the Israelites were to stay in their tents and worship God in their hearts. The incident of the giving of the manna in Ex. 16 would be in their minds as they receive this commandment from Moses. Just as they have been previously taught to observe the Sabbath, they are now to do likewise continually as God's covenanted people.
3. A specific application of the commandment
"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." (v. 10b)
In order to make it clear how this resting is to be done, God gave very specific instructions on just who is not allowed to do any work. By delineating the different categories of people, God made it very plain that absolutely no one is to work, even the servants both male and female who serve the Israelites. Not only that, even the stranger/sojourner who does not belong to the community of Israel is not to work while he is within her, despite the fact that he is not an Israelite himself. All who are spatially located within the community of Israel are not to work despite their age, gender, status or citizenship.
In this, the command to rest is absolute. For the strict Sabbatarians, a translation of the Exodus command means therefore that all should rest. There is no such thing as enjoying the labors of non-believers or even believers who do not obey the Sabbath because the command to rest is universal. To use electricity therefore is wrong since the electricity that is enjoyed is produced at a power plant which employs people to run the plant, or at least monitor the machinery to make sure it works fine and troubleshoot otherwise. Just as strict Sabbatarians would not eat outside because they "do not want to support" Sabbath breaking, they should not use electricity also because of the same reason.
Back to the Mosaic economy, the Sabbath command is a universal mandate to rest for all in the Israelite community. The Israelites are to prepare for the Sabbath (cf Ex 16:23, 29) and trust God that no emergency such as war would emerge so that they can properly celebrate the Sabbath. As we will see later, such an application is unique for the time of the Mosaic economy, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
4. The reason for the command
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. (v. 11)
The last part of the commandment shows the rationale for the Sabbath command that God gives to Israel. The rationale lies in the Creation account in Gen. 2:1-3, which is here used as the basis for the Sabbath command.
i. The Creation Sabbath
Previously when we started off with Gen. 2:1-3, it is mentioned that although there is a possible allusion to the Sabbath in the creation account, the Sabbath is itself not taught in the passage. Rather, it is only when we come to the Sabbath command in Ex. 20 that we can see more fully the significance of the rest of God in Gen. 2:1-3. God of course does not tire, so His resting is not like ours. Rather, God's rest in Gen. 2:1-3 is meant for us as an example not for Him.
There is thus indeed a Creation Sabbath, and this we know not because we are told to remember the Sabbath (because that could apply to Ex. 16), or because Gen. 2:1-3 tells us that God rested and sanctified the 7th day He did rest, but because of the revelation that is given us in Ex. 20:11. God in His progressive revelation of Himself in His Word shows us that the passage in Gen. 2:1-3 is meant to teach us about the Sabbath, being the pattern for all humanity from Adam onwards. Although the commandment is given to Moses and the Israelites, the fact that the Sabbath command is grounded in the creation order and shown by God in the Creation itself makes it universal upon all mankind.
In this light, we can say that Adam learned to honor the Sabbath from God Himself, although that information is not found in the text but a necessary deduction from Gen. 2:1-3 as read in light of Ex. 20:11. As men fell further into sin however, the Sabbath was generally rejected since it reminds men of their status as creatures before a Creator. At Sinai therefore, God was merely reinstating the Sabbath command as it was supposed to be.
It must be noted that the basis of the Sabbath command rests on the Creation account of God creating everything in 6 days and resting on the 7th. The Sabbath command is therefore linked with the belief in the creation of all things in 6 historical days. A denial of 6-day creation in theories such as Evolution or the Day-age theory therefore destroys the basis of the Sabbath command and the 7-day week. Conversely, those who believe that God did not lie in giving the 4th commandment (regardless of their view on whether it is later abrogated or not) must reject both evolution and the day-age theory and embrace some form of creationism. To not do so is inconsistency on their part at best.
ii. The Creation basis
Another issue that we will take note of is the thread of creation that runs through the Sabbath motif. This would become more significant after we have looked through the other passages on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, from this verse alone we can see that the basis for observing the Sabbath given to the Israelites is the creation account. The purposes of the Sabbath therefore are for us to:
- Remember Creation
- Remember that we are creatures before a Creator
Because we are creatures, we are to live for God. We are not autonomous beings pursuing our own agendas, but our lives are to be reflections of God's sovereignty.
There is thus no point in obeying the Sabbath in its external observance if we lives as "Sabbath or Sunday Christians". The reason for the Sabbath is to remind us that we are dependent creatures not autonomous beings. To live 6 days like pagans and 1 day as an obedient Sabbath observer is not only hypocritical, it actually is a violation of the Sabbath in its essence. Such people major on the minors and minor on the majors, and end up violating what they claim to observe.
Wrapping up the 4th commandment
The 4th commandment to observe the Sabbath is therefore multi-faceted. It is at one time both part of the Decalogue and yet transcends it; part of the Mosaic economy yet bigger than it. As we look further into the Sabbath motif, things are going to get more complicated not less, and the larger picture concerning God's intent for making the Sabbath will become clearer.
[to be continued]